Media Foreign Affairs and National Security 2013.10.11
The first round of the long-awaited Rouhani-Obama match finished last week in New York City. Although no punches were directly exchanged, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani seems to have clearly won the round, attracting many spectators in the United Nations auditorium.
It was indeed an impressive debut to international power politics for Rouhani. Unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he looked much more orthodox and mature. Like Muhammad Ali, he "floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee."
There were no prohibited bitings, trippings or low blows such as "the Holocaust never took place," remarks during the bout. Yet, oddly enough, there is no referee in the ring nor are there ringside judges for this match. Of course, there are no agreed game rules, either.
The two heavyweights were only shadow-boxing in their respective corners at the beginning of the round. Eventually they started moving around but there was no face-to-face contact in the first three minutes.
The first round started with Obama's 'personal letter' in late August to which Rouhani responded formally. Obama offered a brief summit meeting which Rouhani gently declined. Finally, Obama placed a phone call to Rouhani on his way to the airport. They talked for just fifteen minutes.
When Rouhani returned to his corner, he was badly criticized by a group of hardliner students for talking to the Americans. In Obama's corner, Israel's Premier 'Bibi' Netanyahu tried to convince him that Rouhani is "a wolf in sheep's clothing." Indeed, this is a whole new world.
It is premature of course to predict the outcome of remaining rounds in the bout. Yet, one thing seems to be clear. The 'beautiful cohabitation' among hardliners in Washington D.C./New York, Jerusalem/Tel Aviv and Teheran/Qom will have to transform.
It has been so easy, for those who are skeptical about Iran's 'peaceful' objectives in developing nuclear technologies, to advocate tough measures against Teheran simply because former President Ahmadinejad had been so easy to demonize and discredit.
Now that they have President Rouhani in Teheran the old tactics are no longer valid. Rouhani is indeed like a sheep; looking so charming, gentle, sophisticated and well experienced that he could easily convince the West that he does not hide anything under his clothing.
That's why Rouhani scored more points than Obama in the first round. But does talking equal concessions? Does Rouhani have the full authority to give up Iran's nuclear technology program? Unfortunately, the answers to these are both 'no.' So we should wait and see.
Looking at this historic match from East Asia, one could raise an important question: what if there was another Rouhani in the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), another problematic country which, in close coordination with the Islamic Republic of Iran, pursues its own nuclear power status in East Asia.
To make a long story short, fortunately, Kim Jong-un is no Hassan Rouhani so far. Jong-un's father Kim Jong-il was more like a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, giving Japan, the United States and the Republic of Korea enough excuses to take tougher measures against the DPRK.
But unlike his son and grandson, Kim Il-sung, the founding grandfather, was a Hassan Rouhani in his time in 1994 when, according to the Carter Center, "The United States and South Korea were on the brink of war with North Korea, convinced that the North was moving to develop nuclear weapons."
The Atlanta-based Center goes on to proudly state that, "In the absence of diplomatic relations among these nations, President Carter and Mrs. Carter went as private citizens representing The Carter Center to meet with President Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang."
"A breakthrough was achieved, and North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for a dialogue with the United States, setting a stage for new efforts to strengthen peace on the Korean Peninsula." Looking at the DPRK's several nuclear weapons tests since then, now we all know how ignorant, naïve and immature we were.
If our 1994 experience was a bitter lesson, we should not repeat the same mistake we made; i.e., sending a former U.S. president to a country with hidden ambitions to become a nuclear power. We could not stop the DPRK then. Kim Il-sung was the DPRK's Hassan Rouhani.
Sanctions are really hurting Iran now. That's why Rouhani got the green light from Khamenei to talk to the 'American devils.' Sanctions, however, have not convinced Khamenei that he should give up the whole nuclear weapon program, as we have witnessed in the DPRK.
It is natural that we should not miss a golden opportunity. Time is probably limited and it won't be long before hardliners in those three capitals strike back again. Yet, we should also think twice before we conclude that NOW is THE golden opportunity.
Remember what has happened in the Korean Peninsula since 1994. There has been direct technological cooperation between Iran and the DPRK. Having exchanged ballistic missile know-how, will Tehran now try to take a strategic page from Pyongyang's 1994 play book? Historical mistakes should not be repeated.