The public record suggests that Rouhani, in fact, is closely aligned with Khamenei and Suleimani: His statements reveal a conspiratorial, anti-American, and anti-Israel worldview that justifies Iranian intervention in support of Assad.
Rouhani describes the uprising in Syria as an American and Israeli conspiracy aimed at undermining the "resistance" to Israel. He charges that the, "[m]achinations of the West in Syria are conspiracies against Iran." Meanwhile, his statement against "extremism," "terrorism" and "foreign interference" in Syria, and his depiction of Syria as a regional anomaly rather than as part of the Arab Spring, or "Islamic Awakening," reflect Assad's position: The uprising against Assad's rule is "terrorism," and not a genuine popular uprising.
Only a month after Rouhani issued a statement opposing terrorism and foreign interference inside Syria, he publicly pledged his support for the Assad regime, and Hezbollah, reaffirming that Iranian-Syrian ties will be able to confront "enemies in the region, especially the Zionist regime."
The Obama administration wisely has avoided Iranian attempts to tie Syria and Iranian nukes together in the diplomatic talks over Tehran's nuclear program. This ploy should always be rejected; it is an Iranian attempt to undercut American negotiating leverage by expanding the scope of the nuclear talks so that, for example, Tehran can offer to support the end of Assad's rule in exchange for international acceptance of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.
That leverage is based on a strategy of coercive diplomacy, which in turn requires economic and military coercion. If the Obama administration wants to persuade the Supreme Leader to meet Iran's international nuclear obligations, it needs to massively intensify the sanctions on Tehran to wipe out the Islamic Republic's foreign exchange reserves, which would bring the regime to the brink of economic collapse; right now is exactly the wrong time to be offering meaningful sanctions relief.
The U.S. can't assume that increased concessions will strengthen Rouhani's "moderate" position in the Iranian political structure. Instead, the onus should be on Rouhani to demonstrate his influence and moderation.
Sanctions are also likely not enough: Since Tehran doesn't appear to fear the possibility of American military force, President Obama can strengthen his warning that he does not bluff through intermediate military steps.
The presence of IRGC units, Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias in Syria presents a target of opportunity: Surgical U.S. strikes directly or through carefully-vetted U.S. proxies against Iranian-backed assets in Syria, or against the Assad regime itself, can enhance Washington's leverage on both the Syrian and nuclear tracks.
With the Assad regime looking less likely to hold onto all of Syria, a strategic defeat now for the U.S. would be the creation of an Iranian-backed " Alawistan" enclave in Western Syria, stretching from the Alawite heartland to Damascus via Homs, and adjoined to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would be a regional platform from which Iran and its proxies could strengthen their dominance over the Levant.
The strategic designs of the Iranian regime and its new president are much more difficult to obfuscate on the killing fields of Syria than in the highly technical and arcane language of nuclear physics. The only way to thwart Tehran's regional and nuclear ambitions is to treat the Iranian regime as it is, not as we wish it to be.