The Obama-Rouhani Dialogue: Why It's Important, and Why It Isn't

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For many Israeli officials, last week's short-but-symbolic conversation between the presidents of the United States and Islamic Republic of Iran have sent the political alarm bells ringing. One lawmaker, according to The New York Times, even went so far as to invoke the hackneyed “Munich analogy”, linking President Obama with British Prime Minister Chamberlain and his infamous appeasement deal with Hitler in 1938 that paved the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland and, ultimately, World War II.

The Israeli concern can be summarized as follows: Iran's intentions with this new dialogue with the U.S. are disingenuous as best, and most probably deceptive. Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that the Iranians are only trying to stall and buy time to further advance their nuclear weapons program, and that the latest charm offensive led by Mr. Rouhani and his charismatic foreign minister (which began with tweets by both men wishing all the Jews of a world a happy Rosh Hashanah) is intended to relieve international pressure from Iran so that it can further that aim.

There can be no question that Iran remains a threat to regional and international security, and Mr. Rouhani's phone chat with Mr. Obama does nothing to alter that reality. Nevertheless, there are two fundamental reasons why the Israeli response to this new dialogue has been, to put it mildly, disproportionate. First and foremost, Mr. Obama is no fool — he, like the rest of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and regional experts everywhere, is well aware that Mr. Rouhani is not his commensurate counterpart in Iran's theocratic system. The ultimate authority on all matters relating to relations with the U.S. has been and continues to be the the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. As we witnessed with Mr. Rouhani's predecessor, Iran's president and the supreme leader do not always see eye-to-eye, especially on matters of foreign policy. Therefore, what Mr. Rouhani does and says may bear some symbolic significance, but its impact should not be overstated. Until Mr. Obama sits down for a face-to-face with the Ayatollah, we should dispense with the comparisons to Chamberlain and Hitler; Mr. Rouhani, his official title notwithstanding, is no fuhrer.

Secondly, however, it would be naive to assume that Mr. Rouhani dialogued with the American president without Mr. Khamenei's blessing. And yet even if this entire endeavor is part of an elaborate diplomatic chess game, as the Israelis maintain, we must not also assume that Mr. Khameini is that adept at playing it, or somehow not prone to making huge political miscalculations. We need only look back to the events of the 2009 presidential elections to remind us of the supreme leader's fallibility. Thus, Mr. Rouhani's outreach last week may be attributable in part to his own independent objectives as a new president who is eagerly seeking to undo the damage done by his predecessor, but also in part a product of Mr. Khameini's tepid attempt at moving the pieces forward in the hopes that the game will play out the way he wants.

Regardless of what is really going on behind the scenes in Tehran and Qom, there is one constant that we can rely on, the Iranian public, who by and large continue to remain the most pro-American and pro-Israeli citizenry in the entire Islamic Middle East. The Obama-Rouhani dialogue, therefore, should be seen as an opening for the Iranian people, and not necessarily as an opportunistic ploy by their leaders. No matter where this new dialogue goes, or what its motives are, one great taboo has been broken: a sitting Iranian president has officially and openly communicated with an American president. Nothing can reverse that, and it will only be a matter of time before Iran's other shibboleths are challenged. The Israelis, while justifiably viewing these events with suspicion and an eye towards their own national security, would be wise to not undermine this process.