Why Did Rouhani Say 'No' to Obama?

There’s nothing surprising about Iran’s actions this week because Khamenei still calls the shots.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani waits to address the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)

It may not have been a flat-out rejection, but Iranian President Hassan Rouhani certainly surprised a lot of people by declining to meet with President Obama yesterday. We don't know anything approaching the whole story. Letters between the two, back-channel messages, and in all likelihood, secret conversations between representatives of the two countries have been going on for quite a while. The secret diplomacy has been conducted for decades, even though Rouhani was only recently elected.

So far, the plot of “hopes and expectations raised, then a slap in the face” follows the usual script. Just ask Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, both of whom believed they had reached agreement with the Iranian regime, a “grand bargain” that would put the two countries on the path to better relations, lift some American sanctions, and, in Bush's case, end Iranian uranium enrichment. At the last minute, Iran said “forget it.” Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and her top deputy, Nicholas Burns, had flown to New York in the fall of 2006 to welcome the Iranian diplomat Ali Larijani to the United Nations, where the Grand Bargain was to have been signed. But he never left Tehran. Clinton got a public rebuke from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, currently Rouhani's boss.

There is nothing particularly new or surprising in Iran's behavior this week. Khamenei, who is the ultimate authority in Tehran, hates the United States, and is not at all eager to reach an agreement with us unless it is a clear triumph for the Islamic Republic. That probably means the United States would lift all unilateral sanctions, accept Iran's “right” to enrich uranium, speed up our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and recognize Iran as the most important country in the region. It might also include American acceptance of the linkage between Syrian surrender of chemical weapons and Israeli surrender of nukes.

It isn't likely that any American president would agree to all that in exchange for Iranian promises to limit uranium enrichment and give greater access to UN inspectors of Iranian (non-military) nuclear facilities. To begin with, the United States can't deliver Israeli nuclear disarmament, so the sort of bargain that might satisfy the supreme leader isn't possible, at least for now (the Iranians, in declining Obama's invitation to talk, said this isn't the right moment). But that certainly does not mean that any and all negotiations are off the table. On the contrary, negotiations serve Iran's interests because they provide still more time for the regime to pursue its immediate ends: the clear victory of Bashar Assad in the Syrian War and the successful completion of the nuclear weapons program.

You can expect Foreign Minister Zarif to propose more negotiations when he sits with Secretary of State Kerry in a couple of days.

The Iranian “no” to Obama gives the supreme leader the personal and ideological satisfaction of humiliating yet another American president. After all, it was Obama who pursued Rouhani (after failing to engage Khamenei for more than four years), not the other way around.

Meanwhile, Rouhani continued his “charm offensive,” delivering a carefully crafted speech to the General Assembly insisting that he didn't want to do anything to worsen relations with the United States.

Even as he stuck his finger in Obama's eye.