THE APPEARANCES of President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday further primed soaring expectations that the United States and Iran, after decades of enmity, can reach an accord. Mr. Obama said the two governments “should be able” to reach “a meaningful agreement” limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Rouhani called for “time-bound and results-oriented talks.” Secretary of State John F. Kerry will join a meeting with Iran’s foreign minister this week, the highest-level U.S.-Iranian contact in years.
Mr. Obama is right that “the diplomatic path must be tested.” But is the president’s optimism justified? Mr. Rouhani has excited Iran-watchers in the West over the past several weeks with a charm offensive that has included tweeted holiday greetings to Jews, the release of some political prisoners and a Post op-ed that promised a “constructive dialogue.” But there has been no substance — and there is ample reason for skepticism that a reversal of Iran’s drive to achieve nuclear weapons capability is in the works.
Iran has steadily built its capacity to enrich uranium through a decade of negotiations and escalating sanctions. Mr. Rouhani, a longtime and fiercely loyal follower of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has yet to offer any indication of what, if any, deviations the regime may be prepared to make from its previous refusal to limit that activity, accept more intrusive international inspections or answer U.N. inspectors’ questions about suspected work on warheads and missiles.
On the contrary: During his election campaign this year, Mr. Rouhani boasted that, as the regime’s nuclear negotiator a decade ago, he had managed to head off sanctions even as the program moved forward. His pitch to Iranians was that a different approach to the West, eschewing the confrontational, Holocaust-denying antics of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, might win relief from sanctions while preserving Iran’s interests.
In that sense, Mr. Obama’s assertion that “President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course” struck us as misguided. Mr. Rouhani was in New York on Tuesday not because democracy triumphed in Iran but because Iran’s real leader decided to give the soft-sell strategy a try. It’s possible that the regime could offer concessions, such as partial limits on enrichment or a reduction of its growing stockpile of enriched uranium; such steps, after all, were once proposed by Mr. Ahmadinejad. But a genuine renunciation of the capacity to build a weapon, and the acceptance of international controls that would enforce that commitment, looks far-fetched.
A small accord with Iran — a reduction of nuclear capacity in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions — would be preferable to unchecked development by Tehran that provokes U.S. or Israeli military action. The Obama administration has aimed at such a deal since 2009 — and has responded to Tehran’s intransigence by sweetening its offers. The danger is that, in the fevered atmosphere generated by Mr. Rouhani’s skillful public diplomacy, the United States and its allies will be induced into further, unwarranted concessions — or deluded into believing that a “grand bargain” is possible with Iran. Better to swiftly demand that Mr. Rouhani make clear his bottom line — and prick the bubble he has been inflating.