Iran's Rouhani caught between eager world at UN, worried hardliners at home

Expectations soared as Iranian President Rouhani arrived at the UN, but he passed on the opportunity for a historic handshake with President Obama.

Brendan McDermid/AP
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.

Is Iran still a revolutionary state, bent on “resistance” against US and Israeli “hegemons” and “militarism?" Or is it a peace-loving Islamic Republic preaching tolerance and moderation, ready to bury decades of anti-US mistrust and make a deal on its nuclear program?

Both are true, judging by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's high-profile speech to the United Nations yesterday – his first step onto the world stage since winning June elections with the slogan “hope and prudence.” 

When the centrist president finally stood at the marbled UN podium in his white turban and immaculate clerical robes, his words demonstrated the fine balance Mr. Rouhani must achieve between noisy hardliners at home, who fear he is compromising the values of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, and reformists in Iran and worldwide who want and expect substantial change – now.

Expectations could not have been higher, as a well-orchestrated Iranian charm offensive arrived in New York this week. Officials promised new diplomatic flexibility and an end to the bombast that marked the previous eight years under arch-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“People all over the world are tired of war, violence, and extremism. They hope for a change in the status quo. And this is a unique opportunity – for us all,” Rouhani told the UN chamber Tuesday.

Rouhani, a regime insider who negotiated an initial nuclear deal with European powers a decade ago, said he was “deeply optimistic” about the future, and said Iran was ready to “manage [its] differences” with the US and “remove any and all reasonable concerns” about its controversial nuclear program.

When Rouhani says, “'We can find a framework to manage our differences,’ that indicates Iran is prepared for a deal,” says one reform-leaning Iranian analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named.

Balancing act

Despite Rouhani's popular mandate, and current support from Iran’s highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he is facing low-boil opposition from hardline circles that he is moving too far, too fast.

That may explain the last minute decision by Iran yesterday not to take up an American offer of a highly symbolic handshake and brief encounter between Rouhani and President Barack Obama.

And it almost certainly accounts for the first half of Rouhani’s speech, which was aimed at his conservative audience inside Iran. In strong, sometimes elliptical language, he echoed the tone and positions also taken by Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Khamenei.

“Coercive economic and military policies…negates peace, security, human dignity, and exalted human ideals,” Rouhani said, referring to US-led sanctions against Iran, and US military efforts from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya. 

The “persistence of Cold War mentality and bipolar division of the world into ‘superior us’ and ‘inferior others,” Rouhani said, fanned “fear and phobia around the emergence of new actors [like Iran] on the world scene.” 

He repeated a Khamenei theme of building up “imaginary threats."

“One such imaginary threat is the so-called ‘Iranian threat,’ which has been employed as an excuse to justify a long catalogue of crimes and catastrophic practices over the past three decades,” said Rouhani, citing “the arming of Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons” and “supporting” the Taliban and Al Qaeda as examples of some of those crimes – the exact same charge the US has made before against Iran.

Nevertheless, Rouhani's catalogue of issues between Iran and its rivals, gave way in the speech to a new outlook with "moderation" as the watchword.

“As an Iranian, I am satisfied” with the speech, the analyst in Tehran says. “He started by referring to the history of unfair behavior toward Iran…it seems idealistic but it was really necessary,” to remind his audience of the roots of decades of mutual hostility between Iran and its enemies. 

No more enemies

Rouhani also hit other perennial revolutionary buttons for Iran. Without mentioning Israel by name, he said: “Apartheid as a concept can hardly describe the crimes and the institutionalized aggression against the innocent Palestinian people.”

On Syria, he blamed outside forces for “infusion of arms and intelligence…and active support of extremist groups” – without noting Iran’s similar clandestine support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

On terrorism, Rouhani condemned it as a “violent scourge” and said “killing of innocent people represent the ultimate inhumanity of extremism and violence.” He made no mention of the official US view that Iran remains the chief state sponsor of terrorism.

From drone attacks on “innocent people in the name of combating terrorism” to assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists to US-led sanctions that have caused Iran’s economy to shrivel, Rouhani listed reasons to be wary.

But he did not use the term “enemy” or other belittling vocabulary long common in Iran’s revolutionary discourse. He later told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in an interview that Americans “are very near and dear to the hearts of the Iranian people,” and – in a direct departure from the Holocaust-questioning Ahmadinejad – said the World War II Nazi crimes against Jews were “reprehensible and condemnable.”

“The taking of human life is contemptible,” Rouhani told CNN. “It makes no difference if that life is a Jewish life, Christian, or Muslim. For us, it is the same.”

The scaling back of angry rhetoric is a nod to the vastly improved prospects for rapprochement with the West.

In his speech to the UN just a few hours earlier, Obama spoke about “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons” – which Iran publicly denies and US intelligence agencies conclude was halted by Iran in 2003. But he also noted that Iranians had been “poisoned in the many tens of thousands” by chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.

“We’re not seeking regime change and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy,” said Obama. Until yesterday, the only explicit statement to Tehran that the US was not pursuing “regime change” in recent years – amid a “covert war” that has included the assassinations of nuclear scientists in Tehran, unexplained explosions, espionage, Stuxnet and other computer viruses – was embedded in a private letter sent years ago by Obama to Khamenei.

“We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian [nuclear] program is peaceful,” Obama said. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”

How far that path can go depends on the power of naysayers in both Tehran and Washington.

Short-lived triumph?

A taste of the pushback came in the hardline Kayhan newspaper, where writer Mohammad Imani asked readers to “imagine” what might happen if “a taboo is broken” and there is an Obama-Rouhani handshake, or even a typical Iranian greeting among men of an embrace and a kiss.

“Those who for some time have been envious of eating this forbidden fruit will be drowned in excitement for hours. Then what?” writes Mr. Imani, according to a translation by Al-Monitor. “Say that the clean hands of our president for some moments are in the bloody hands of Obama. Then what have we acquired, and what have we lost?”

Mojtaba Mousavi, an Iranian political commentator close to leadership circles, told The New York Times in Tehran, “Our leader is convinced the ultimate goal of the US is to foil our spirit of confrontation and change our behavior. The basis of our revolution is fighting the hegemonic powers.”

Still, Rouhani ended his speech saying a “bright future awaits the world,” and quoted the Quran: “And We proclaimed in the Psalms, after We had proclaimed in the Torah, that My virtuous servants will inherit the earth.”

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