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Hopes are high for Iran's 'diplomatic sheikh' on eve of UN visit

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has preached a message of moderation and cooperation – a sharp departure from his predecessor, known for his anti-West tirades.

By Staff writer / September 19, 2013

New Iranian President Hasan Rohani, seen as a moderate, said Sept. 10 that Iran can strike a ‘win-win’ deal with world powers over its nuclear program.

Rouzbeh Jadidoleslam/Presidency Office/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

The first time Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spoke at the United Nations, he believed that his fellow heads of state were rapt with attention.

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"I felt that all of a sudden the atmosphere changed there, and for 27 to 28 minutes all the leaders did not blink," Mr. Ahmadinejad later told a cleric in a moment caught on video. He added that he had "become surrounded by light" during the speech.

"I am not exaggerating.... They were astonished, as if a hand held them there and made them sit," said Ahmadinejad. "It had opened their eyes and ears for the message of the Islamic Republic."

For eight years, Iran's archconservative president – the son of a blacksmith, with a populist touch and self-declared messianic mandate – called from the UN podium for global "peace, equality, and compassion," but also defiantly tutored the world about the "terminal" decline of the West, the "usurping" crimes of Zionism, and later Iran's resilience in the face of deepening, crippling sanctions.

But during those years – as Iran expanded its nuclear program exponentially and confronted the United States and the West – the economy shriveled, Iran's hard-line politics grew viciously divisive, and the risk of war rose.

So anticipation could not be higher for the next Iranian to take a turn at the UN podium: Hassan Rouhani, the centrist cleric nicknamed the "diplomat sheikh." His promises of moderation and re-engagement with the West carried him to a surprise June election victory over a slate of conservative rivals.

Invitation for cooperation

"Rouhani's UN mission is likely aimed at eradicating the memory of Iran's provocateur in chief's uncanny strut on the world stage," says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). "The goal is to repair Ahmadinejad's damage and show that now pragmatism is in the driver's seat in Tehran."

"Ahmadinejad's basis was confrontation," says Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Rouhani deputy on Iran's nuclear negotiating team who is now at Princeton University in New Jersey and in close contact with the new administration.

"Definitely [Mr. Rouhani] won't have provocative lectures; definitely he will invite the world for cooperation, peace, and engagement," Mr. Mousavian says.

Few expect Iran to change its fundamental commitment to its nuclear program, or reverse a regional strategy of "resistance" against US, Israeli, and Western influence.

But analysts say the potential for positive change created by Rouhani's shocking victory – which has been dubbed a "political epic" by Iranian leaders, because of its import – is significant.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday appeared to give further backing of Rouhani's mandate for change on the nuclear issue, possible US relations, and foreign policy.

"I agree with what I years ago called heroic flexibility, because this is sometimes a very good and necessary move," Khamenei told the Revolutionary Guard, emphasizing that did not mean abandoning key principles. "Sometimes a wrestler shows flexibility for technical reasons but he doesn't forget who his opponent is and what his real goal is."

Striking the right balance

Rouhani's challenges will be threefold. He must convince the US and world powers that his vow of "removing tensions" and resolving the nuclear issue with "more transparency" and proactive diplomacy is not mere rhetoric.

But as he reforges Iran's diplomatic approach, Rouhani must also reassure conservative critics back home that he is not selling out to the West or compromising revolutionary principles. Rouhani's many liberal and reformist supporters expect, too, that he will bridge Iran's social divides and loosen internal restrictions.

"Everybody was saying that the era of sorrow is coming to an end, and the people are coming to the polling stations to create new conditions.... Everyone was victorious," Rouhani said days after his June 14 victory, when the streets were full of jubilant Iranians.

On his inauguration day in early August, Rouhani declared that Iran "cannot be made to surrender though sanctions," and that the "only way for interaction with Iran is a dialogue on an equal footing, confidence-building which should be mutual, and mutual respect as well as reducing antagonism and aggressiveness."

Rouhani has the right pedigree: He is a regime insider since the first days of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution who has served for decades in senior positions and even negotiated a temporary nuclear deal with European nations a decade ago – a deal that hard-liners have criticized.

Today, Rouhani also has the support of Khamenei, Iran's highest political authority. The supreme leader has several times warned conservatives still reeling from electoral defeat to back off in their criticism and called on all factions to help the new government.

"The leader has a tradition to support the president and the new administration at least in the first two years – to tolerate, even if he disagrees; to tolerate, to support, to back up," says his former deputy Mousavian.

As long as Khamenei and Rouhani are in agreement on foreign policy, naysayers will have little effect, says an analyst in Tehran who described a "new rationality in Iran" and asked not to be identified.

"I believe that Ayatollah Khamenei doesn't want to be considered by the Iranian people as someone who is the main obstacle to changing things for the better," says the analyst. "He really wants to make a contribution to removing the notorious image of Iran and also wants to repair his own radical image to society by supporting the current government."

Indeed, Khamenei said in early September, "One of the benefits of the current circumstances is the coming of a fresh administration with a group of capable and determined individuals [who seek to] advance the country toward [its] goals," according to a translation by the American Enterprise Institute's IranTracker.org.

The bottom line remains

But confrontational rhetoric has hardly ceased. In the same speech, Khamenei said the US and Western presence in the Middle East "is invasive, bullish, greedy, and has the goal of eliminating any resistance." And days later, addressing Friday prayer leaders, he spoke of centuries of "deep conflict" between Islam and the West, and said it continues today.

"If there is no strength [among Muslims] and the Westerners find an opening, they will show no mercy, just as they do not express sadness about killing millions in world wars and the massacre of innocents in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan," Khamenei said.

It's not clear how those undimmed revolutionary sentiments could limit Rouhani's ability to negotiate issues on the nuclear dossier, or conduct a wider engagement with the West.

"The change in presidents will usher in important changes in style and negotiating tactics, but certainly will not bring about significant changes in Iran's bottom-line demands: recognition of its right to enrich [uranium] and meaningful sanctions relief," notes a recent ICG report.

"Western doubts about [Rouhani's] ability to deliver are matched by Tehran's skepticism that the US in particular can accept a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic or that President Barack Obama has the political muscle to lift sanctions."

Rouhani has made clear that he will not be a pushover when it comes to what Iran defines as its own strategic interests – from the nuclear issue to its anti-Israel stance – and how it defends them. The new president was irate when, four days before his inauguration, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, which imposes further restrictions on Iran's oil exports.

"Unfortunately, Americans pursue contradictory words and deeds, as they take orders from a warmongering pressure group, which is against constructive dialogue and works at the behest of another country [Israel], even to the detriment of US national interests," Rouhani said. "If anyone thinks [that] through threats they can impose their will on the Iranian nation, they are making a huge mistake. This dual-track approach [pressure and persuasion] will not yield any result."

Those lines echo longstanding Iranian policies. But Rouhani's own writings indicate that he does not harbor an ideological hatred toward the West.

"Extreme cynicism towards the West and international organizations is a chronic pain, congealed into the minds of many. Some of it is justified, but such doctrinaire views are unrealistic," Rouhani wrote in his voluminous 2011 history called "National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy," according to an ICG translation.

He also warns of Iran's own factionalism in dealing with such sensitive national issues, implying that Iranian officials must rise above petty politics.

"Experience shows that tying systemic decisions and major policies to interests of one faction undermines national interest and harms the country," wrote Rouhani in his book. "During nuclear negotiations I repeatedly witnessed criticism, questions, and slanders aimed at settling political accounts."

'You can't imagine anyone better'

The contrast couldn't be greater between the professorial and smiling Rouhani and the firebrand Ahmadinejad – the combative president who, in one of his typical political put-downs, derided critics as people "who understand as much as a goat about the world."

"Rouhani's first month in office offers a blueprint of his style of governance," says Mr. Vaez of the ICG. "He made his priorities clear early on by standing his ground on key cabinet choices, while demonstrating his ability to compromise by ceding ground on other ministerial posts."

Rouhani won most of the key battles, including getting veteran diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif confirmed as foreign minister. Mr. Zarif has spent more than half his life in the US, has been involved in several US-Iran exchanges, and has even been accused of being too close to America. He also deployed the US-educated former foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, to run the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. And he replaced conservative Saeed Jalili as head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council with Ali Shamkhani, a moderate former defense minister who, as an ethnic Arab, repaired Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia in 2000.

"You can't find better than these three. In the current situation for Iran you can't imagine anyone better," Mousavian says.

Introducing Zarif during confirmation hearings in August, Rouhani said an "important message" of his election victory was "rethinking foreign policy. This doesn't mean changes in principles and foundations but in actions."

"Foreign policy is not about propaganda," Rouhani said. "We should be assertive about our national interests, but what we say must be fair, accurate, and logical."

"The signals of his speeches, his statements, the tweets from Mr. Zarif on congratulating Jews [on the Jewish new year] and condemning Holocaust denial – these are really very clear signals where [Rouhani] wants to go," Mousavian says.

The hearings were dominated by lawmakers' focus on how ministerial candidates behaved during the disputed 2009 presidential election and its violent aftermath – a period called "the sedition" in hard-line circles.

"What made the broadcast hearings fascinating was the gradual public realization that the [hard-line] folks who have led Iran into disaster are now sitting in judgment of the folks the electorate voted for," wrote Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, in an analysis last month on LobeLog.com, a Middle East policy website.

"They were voted in precisely because they promised to run the country with managerial expertise and to loosen the grip of ideology in decisionmaking," Mr. Farhi said. Indeed, this is an administration with a foreign-affairs strategy of trying to shift Iran's stance from constant confrontation to cooperation.

"For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a government has taken office with a clear slogan in foreign policy and [the president and foreign minister] have extensive knowledge and proven expertise," wrote Alireza Shams Lahijani, an international relations specialist, on the Iranian Diplomacy website.

How this affects the international order will start to become clear at the UN, although the crisis in Syria is already testing Rouhani's avowed pragmatism after barely a month at the helm. "The fundamental principles are clear, but the way ahead is rutted and challenging," Mr. Lahijani wrote. "The expectations of [Rouhani and Zarif] are reasonably or unreasonably high; something that might cause problems for them."

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