Skip to main content

Be cautious with new, smiley-faced Iran

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
September 30, 2013 -- Updated 1556 GMT (2356 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: In face of Rouhani's moves, U.S. should smile back, keep up sanctions
  • He says there's reason for skepticism; Rouhani has history in terrorism-backing regime
  • He says Khameini holds the real power; still, there's hope some change may begin
  • Frum: Iran has long record of deceit; for progress, nuke program must be shut down

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- How to react to Iran's new smiley-faced president, Hassan Rouhani?

Smile back, but don't stop squeezing Iran with sanctions.

Rouhani has offered a series of positive gestures since taking office in early August. He has released some political prisoners. He sent New Year's greetings to Jews in Iran and around the world. He took a phone call from the president of the United States.

David Frum
David Frum

Does any of this portend real change in Iran?

The case for skepticism is strong. None of the regime has changed in any way. Iran continues to make mischief through the region, most horrifically by supporting the brutal actions of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. As far as anyone can tell, Iran pursues nuclear weapons as determinedly as ever.

Rouhani himself is no liberal and no Democrat. An early supporter of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Rouhani held senior positions in the Iranian state during the regime's most vicious period of international terrorism, the early 1990s - the years in which Iranian-backed terrorists carried out assassinations in Berlin and Paris and carried out two terrible bombings of Jewish targets in Buenos Aires, killing 114 people and wounding nearly a thousand more.

As Iran's chief nuclear negotiator in the 2000s, Rouhani nimbly evaded international efforts to achieve a peaceful end to the country's drive for weapons of mass death.

More fundamentally, the president of Iran does not govern the country's national security system. The military and the secret police answer to the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khameini, who has very emphatic geopolitical ideas of his own. Compared with all that, a cheerful tweet and a few words of condemnation of Nazi crimes don't seem much of an offset.

So, caution.

Presidential historian on U.S.-Iran call
Historic call ends 34 years of silence
Rouhani's landmark week

But there is an "on the other hand."

On the other hand, sanctions have been biting Iran hard the past year. The currency has plunged in value, inflation rages, goods have become scarce in the shops. Iran's leaders have seen other authoritarian rulers swept from power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya - and pushed to the very brink in Syria. Has Iran's leadership become frightened that it could fall victim to similar grievances? If anything, Iran's economic situation has deteriorated further and faster than that of any of the countries in which leaders were toppled.

Iranian elections are neither free nor fair. But Iranian elections do permit some controlled airing of public grievances. Rouhani has been quoted as saying that he does not approve of Iran's centrifuges spinning while the economy remains stagnant. As so often the case with him, these are very ambiguous words. Perhaps he means that he'd like to accelerate the spinning of both the centrifuges and the economy. Perhaps he is expressing a purely personal and ineffectual opinion.

But it's worth the effort to explore whether he and his colleagues might mean something more.

Western diplomats often succumb to the Iranian demand that we accept total responsibility for the Iran-West relationship while assigning Iran none. Last week, the New Yorker magazine indulged yet another example of this tendency when it quoted Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, as suggesting that we might have reached a deal with Iran in 2002 if only President George W. Bush had not bruised the mullah's feelings with his "axis of evil" speech, in whose drafting I played a role.

The hope that some magic incantation might change Iran springs eternal, but states are more thick-skinned than that. They act for deep reasons of interest. Iran's policy toward the West originates inside the regime, and so will any changes of that policy.

If those changes have begun, the United States should be ready to recognize and welcome them. But there should be no mistaking why those changes have begun: economic pressure from Western-imposed sanctions and fear of American-backed military action. End the pressure and the fear prematurely, and the changes will end.

Iran's nuclear program must be closed down for good. Iran's long record of evasion and deceit requires more than mere promises - we must see decisive and irrevocable proof. Until Iran changes policy, we don't change policy. But if Iran changes its tone, we can change tone, too. A smile is a helpful start, so long as we all understand that it's only a start.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT