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Actions, not words, will reveal Iran's 'moderates'

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By Trudy Rubin
Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Now that President Obama and Hassan Rouhani have had their historic phone call — the first contact between U.S. and Iranian leaders since 1979 — one has to ask whether the United States has finally found the Iranian “moderate” it has sought for years.

Have we finally found a longtime regime insider who has morphed into that rarest of species, an Iranian moderate who can repair his country's tortured relationship with the West? It's not yet clear.

That is certainly the message Rouhani was at pains to sell at the United Nations and on every stop on his tireless charm offensive last month. Garbed in black robes and white turban, he relentlessly repeated the word “moderation” to diplomats, U.S. publishers and business executives and think tankers and journalists.

Yet Iranian professions of “moderation” tell us little until we see how that term is translated into behavior. The question is not whether Rouhani is an “Iranian moderate.” It's whether domestic and international concerns have convinced the president, and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that Tehran must behave more pragmatically in order to survive and thrive.

Clearly, the Iranian leader recognizes that his country's youthful population is impatient with harsh restrictions imposed during the Ahmadinejad era. He knows he was elected by a youth vote, which exploded into protest after 2009 elections were fixed. He also knows that Iran's economy will remain crippled under onerous international and U.S. sanctions until it can resolve global suspicions that it is building a nuclear-weapons capacity.

But there is no way he can satisfy his public's aspirations so long as sanctions choke Iran's oil revenue and economic growth.

Yet sanctions won't disappear unless and until the regime drops its past determination to retain the ethos, and behavior patterns, of the Iranian revolution, which have kept Iran isolated from much of the world. Yet, when it comes to Iran's behavior in the region, Rouhani's pledges of pragmatism ring hollow.

True, there is an improvement over Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel bombast and Holocaust denial. But when Rouhani says Iran wants to “discard extremism in relations with other states,” one can only sigh.

So long as Tehran arms the Bashar al-Assad regime, so long as it sends Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighters and Lebanese Hezbollah proxies to fuel Syria's sectarian slaughter, Iran will be viewed as an outlier by most Mideast Arabs.

So long as the regime views the region and the world primarily through the prism of its Shiite history and religion, it will create suspicion about its aims.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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