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ANALYSIS: Rouhani’s Election Proves Sanctions Work. Boost Them Now

Asked how he could continue negotiating with Yasser Arafat even as terrorism against Israeli civilians continues, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin famously insisted that “we shall negotiate peace, as though there were no terrorism, and we shall fight terrorism as though there is no peace.”

The Obama Administration and its Western allies would be wise to adopt the same stand toward Iran: pursue negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but don’t lift the sanctions aimed at compelling the Iranians to stop it. In fact, they’d be well-advised tighten the sanctions to show that the West is losing patience.

Iran’s uranium enrichment, which continued throughout the recent presidential campaign and the smiling news conferences in Tehran that followed, goes on without pause. So say the CIA, the Mossad, and European and Arab intelligence analysts. All are highly concerned.

The White House has welcomed the victory of Hassan Rouhani as a potentially hopeful sign, but the self-described reformist has a long record of supporting and covering up his country’s nuclear program. As a senior official a decade ago, he had a role in suspending the uranium enrichment – apparently out of fear that the Bush Administration would follow up its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by striking Iran – but intelligence analysts say the secret work resumed in 2005.

The analysts also say that Rouhani’s own writings indicate that Iran’s strategy was to keep negotiating with the West as a delaying tactic, while the centrifuges kept spinning, to amass a large quantity of enriched uranium.

Intelligence agencies – including some in Arab Gulf countries, where they too are trying to assess if the world is about to face a more gentle Iran or a more insidious one – are pointing to indications that Rouhani is highly loyal to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The reputed evidence includes what is said to be a suicide note, left 21 years ago by Rouhani’s son, which blasted his father for “kissing the hand of Khamenei,” as well as Rouhani’s role as the Supreme Leader’s representative on Iran’s powerful Supreme National Security Council.

Israeli, American, and European Iran watchers link Rouhani’s election victory to decline of Iran’s country’s economy. This decline, in turn, is primarily a result of the international sanctions imposed on Iran since 2005 and enhanced in the last two years.

Iran’s cash requirements are heavily dependent on its oil production and export. Last year oil exports fell to a new low of 1 million barrels per day from 3.3 million the previous year. Sanctions have cost Iran nearly $100 billion, and the economic crisis is manifested by every indicator: an unemployment rate exceeding 30% (and much higher among the younger generation), a major decline in foreign currency reserves, a practical devaluation of 50% for its currency, and the growth of black-market trading. Iran may be on the verge of bankruptcy.

The Supreme Leader undoubtedly hopes that his new president – with his smiling face and softer tone – will charm the U.S. and the West, and will persuade them to lift sanctions without giving up Iran’s nuclear program.

Now, therefore, is the time to reinforce the sanctions, alongside efforts to boost the pace of negotiations. The election proved they are effective. If oil exports drop to the magic number of 500,000 barrels per day, Iran might be willing to make real concessions on its nuclear program. From there, there are many possible formulations for slowing or stopping uranium enrichment, sending medium and highly-enriched uranium out of Iran, and opening facilities to U.N. inspectors.

[Photo: Bouchecl / Wiki Commons]