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Expect a nuclear deal with Iran's Rouhani – but not normal ties with US

Iran's President Rouhani is sincere about a nuclear deal, because the costs of building a nuclear bomb are too high. But demonizing the US is still the linchpin of foreign policy for a certain faction in Tehran. For them, normalization of US relations would mean the regime's end.

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The third fear was expressed when he described the regime as the “regional power.” This was one of those bold assertions that are necessary to cover up the reality. The Iranian regime is not a “regional power” but actually quite weak. It is not lost on Rouhani and his faction that, in order to maintain its current geo-political position, Iran has had to take a large amount of money from its impoverished economy and spend it on countries like Syria and on Hezbollah in Lebanon. And let’s not forget that the main cause of Iran’s current disastrous economic situation is not the result of sanctions, but of sheer ineptitude in management as well as massive financial corruption by the Revolutionary Guards and other actors within the military-financial mafia.

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The current attempt to shift Iran’s nuclear policy is the latest desperate move by a regime seeking to ensure that any path toward normalization will be accompanied by a US guarantee not to follow a policy of regime change.

There is reason to believe Rouhani is sincere on the nuclear issue. The regime’s attempt to build a nuclear bomb, which according to a CIA report ended in 2003, was also aimed at deterring a possible US attack on Iran. It ended then because the dangers of pursuing it had superseded its possible benefits: It ended up inviting a military intervention instead of warding it off.

Rouhani already saw this clearly a decade ago. According to the memoir of a former French ambassador in Iran, François Nicoulaud, a colleague of Rouhani told him that the Revolutionary Guards were in the process of building a bomb but that Rouhani had stopped them.

The danger to any breakthrough now comes not only from those within the regime who see a path to normalization instead of crisis as a recipe for losing their grip on power. It also comes from their international counterparts, primarily the right-wing factions in Israel and neoconservatives in the US who are functioning like “communicating vessels” that keep the cycle of crisis going. They feed each other.

By having a phone call with President Obama as Rouhani headed out of town, Rouhani tried to hedge the domestic contradictions that come with a change of policy. When Mr. Obama wanted to meet and shake his hand in New York, he refused to do so. Back in Iran, he said that the suggestion of having a phone conversation was initiated by Obama’s office, but Obama’s office made the opposite claim. This has put Rouhani on the hot seat back home.

This conflicting presentation of facts – as well as Rouhani’s conflicting tone of compromise and peace on the one hand, and then anger and aggression on the other – suggests a high-wire act of trying to improve relations with the US while avoiding inflaming the Revolutionary Guard. He is trying to follow Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s policy of “heroic flexibility” aimed at maintaining stability by keeping different factions in the regime under control.

The outcome of this struggle will be determined in the end by the strengths and weaknesses of Khamenei as he seeks balance within the governing class. The nature and history of post-revolutionary Iran tells me that the chances of normalizing relations between Iran and the US are not very high. At the same time, the chances of reaching the deal over the nuclear issue are well within reach.

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He now lives in exile outside Paris.

© 2013 Global Viewpoint Network, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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