Welcome, President Rouhani

The Obama administration welcomed the election of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran not just with words but with action — a proposed easing of sanctions on medical supplies, farm products and humanitarian aid.

It is a confidence-building gesture aimed at showing the new Iranian regime that we are willing to reach out to them if they will negotiate in good faith toward curtailment of their nuclear program.

But it is the kind of confidence-building gesture which weakens our own confidence in the determination of the United States to stop Iran from building its bomb. The embrace of the new leader is too eager, too soon.

Rouhani is described everywhere as a moderate. Indeed, he paid a price for moderate views in 2004 when, after he negotiated Iran’s voluntary suspension of its nuclear program, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei branded him as capitulating to the West.

And in his first postelection news conference, Rouhani promised that “Iran will be more transparent, to show that its activities fall within the framework of international rules.”

But this is a thin reed on which to rest a change in foreign policy. We have heard such things before from Tehran, many times, yet they continue to pursue nuclear weapons.

Actually, the price paid by Rouhani for his moderate views was also moderate. He wasn’t purged or imprisoned, but remained a regime insider — as he has been since the Islamic revolution in 1979 — albeit a less powerful one.

So what kind of moderate is Rouhani really?

His widely-quoted campaign line — “Our centrifuges must turn, but so must our country” — may indicate a pragmatic shift from the foam-at-the-mouth, wipe-Israel-off-the-map rhetoric of his predecessor, to realpolitik with less diplomatic buffoonery. But we note that his slogan still puts the turning centrifuges ahead of the country; and does not say what those turning centrifuges will ultimately produce.

Americans really do want peace. They believe that other people also want peace, but their leaders sometimes get in the way. America wants to believe that there is a partner for peace. Unfortunately, it is not always so.

We must beware of “moderates” bearing conciliatory rhetoric who yet belong to an Islamic Revolutionary regime which has spewed hatred for Israel and the Jewish people since its inception, exported terror, and imposed a cruel tyranny on its own people. There were “moderates” in the Wehrmacht too; they opposed Hitler’s aggressive policies, but not because they wanted peace — because they didn’t want Germany to wage war before the military machine was fully ready.

The truth is, it’s not clear yet what Rouhani’s intentions are; or, even if they are honorable, that he will have the authority this time to negotiate away his country’s cherished nuclear ambitions.

So we welcome the proposal already close to passage in the House of Representatives of a tough new sanctions measure aimed at further drying up Iran’s oil exports, which have already fallen 50 percent. The Senate may introduce a similar bill in the next few weeks.

However much the Obama administration welcomes the Rouhani regime, Tehran is well aware of the unfriendly senators and congressmen who are determined to make sure that if the centrifuges keep turning, their country soon won’t. In fact, the White House might do well to encourage, however quietly, the brandishing of that stick, so as to make the offering of the carrot more appealing.

And if the Iranians do come around and agree to a deal, Washington should be willing to test their intentions. That means on-site inspections by outside experts without the stumbling blocks that have made it impossible to know just what Iran’s scientists are up to.

Any deal will require some exercise of trust on the part of the West. President Reagan’s advice when talking about Soviet nukes still holds: “Trust — but verify.”

The issue should be put to the Iranians in such a way that they come to realize that keeping the centrifuges going and keeping their country going at the same time is an oxymoron.