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Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, shown Aug. 4, 2013. (EBRAHIM NOROOZI/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, shown Aug. 4, 2013. (EBRAHIM NOROOZI/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Trust is beside the point when dealing with Rouhani on nuclear policy Add to ...

Don’t worry, John Baird. You don’t have to trust Iran’s new president. Neither does the United States, or the rest of the world. The goal is to get something out of him.

Mr. Baird, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, went to the United Nations with warnings about Iran’s Hasan Rouhani, standing apart from the opening tone of U.S. President Barack Obama, and other Western leaders, who welcomed the prospect that a relative centrist might strike a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program. Only Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu went further, declaring that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

But the goal, right now, is supposed to be to obtain verifiable assurances that Iran isn’t building the bomb. That doesn’t require trust. But it will take talks. Canada, which cut off diplomatic ties last year, is among the naysayers. Mr. Baird did not follow the foreign ministers of close allies such as Australia and Britain, in reaching out last week to talk to Iran’s.

The Canadian tone, at least, wasn’t in unison with the Western world. Last week, in his own speech to the UN, Mr. Obama said recent statements showed there is hope for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. He even called Mr. Rouhani on Friday, a symbolic ice-breaker after decades of silence. On Monday, Mr. Baird warned the world not to fall for an Iranian “charm offensive.”

To be fair to Mr. Baird, he didn’t oppose talks with Iran outright, or, like Mr. Netanyahu, assert that Mr. Rouhani is devising a plot. The Canadian Foreign Minister stopped short of that, and what he really said is, not yet. Skepticism is healthy, but the tone verged on calling the whole thing futile. There’s no need to trust Mr. Rouhani, who has been a regime insider, but Iranians gave him a mandate for reform and talks with the West on nukes.

Is there a charm offensive? Certainly. The release of a handful of political prisoners including Iranian-Canadian Hamid Ghassemi-Shall is undoubtedly a good thing, but the timing, just before Mr. Rouhani’s trip to New York, was clearly designed to generate some warm fuzzy PR.

Whether Mr. Rouhani is also seriously, willing and able to negotiate a deal that will demonstrate to the world that Iran is not building a nuclear weapon is another question, and the answer known only to a handful in Iran’s inner circle. Count Mr. Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper among the most skeptical.

For the record, some former skeptics such as Houchang Hassan-Yari, an Iran expert at Queen’s University and the Royal Military College, have come to believe Mr. Rouhani does represent a genuine opening to resolve the nuclear issue, and the regime, smarting from sanctions, wants to settle it.

But there isn’t any need to trust Iran about its nuclear program. The whole point of the negotiation, notes Janice Stein, the director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, is to create mechanisms, such as intrusive inspections and stopping some types of nuclear activities, that will take the place of trust. “Trust is, in fact, beside the point,” she said.

There’s also no reason to drop sanctions against Iran, imposed to pressure it to honour its nuclear-transparency obligations, now. It’s true that there have been plenty of foot-dragging runarounds before. Mr. Rouhani himself asserts a deal can be struck in three to six months.

Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, had a goal when he issued his warnings about Mr. Rouhani. For years, he’s asserted that the Islamic republic is a hostile regime hell-bent on obtaining nuclear weapons, which can only be stopped by a military strike. He’s pressured Mr. Obama to commit to that.

His speech to the UN was clearly designed to influence U.S. public opinion and constrain Mr. Obama in talks. Mr. Netanyahu wants Iran to be forced to stop all uranium enrichment, and he doesn’t want the U.S. and other Western nations to lift their sanctions, which are clearly smarting, until a deal is being implemented.

What Mr. Baird hoped to achieve is less clear. He wasn’t going to influence U.S. public opinion. It’s worthwhile to persuade other nations to maintain pressure, but probably easier if you don’t suggest the talks are hopeless, anyway. The West doesn’t need to trust him, they just need to see if he’ll strike a deal.

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

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