While thousands of international diplomats are attending this week’s festivities at the annual United Nations General Assembly, American officials are squaring most of their attention on Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.
Since his surprising victory in Iran’s presidential election this summer, the former nuclear negotiator and cleric has generated his fair share of excitement in world capitals, talking of moderation, coming together in pursuit of shared goals and expressing a willingness to become more transparent about his country’s nuclear enrichment efforts.
Compared to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani comes across as a wise sage who understands the nuances and sensitivities of international politics. The president himself criticized Ahmadinejad’s administration for speaking in bold, black and white terms and conducting a foreign policy that, he said, resulted in nothing but global sanctions preventing Iran from exporting its oil.
With an economy in tatters, Rouhani recognizes that he needs to change how Iran does business if there is any hope for those sanctions to be relaxed.
In his first month and a half on the job, Rouhani has given countless interviews and speeches calling for a more tolerant and inclusive policy. In the last week alone, he sat down for an hour long television interview with America’s NBC News, in which he reiterated that Iran had no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons, and wrote an opinion article for The Washington Post, preaching to the United States and its allies on his policy of “constructive engagement.”
“My approach to foreign policy,” he explained, “seeks to resolve these issues by addressing their underlying causes. We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart.” The message to America was clear: let’s talk.
Iranian presidents have taken a conciliatory approach in the past, notably the reformist Mohammad Khatami, only to be constrained by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a government in Washington DC looking for quick results. These bad experiences have left many in America skeptical about Iran’s intentions and Rouhani’s calls for rapprochement.
Israel also doubts that Rouhani is sincere. Almost immediately after the Iranian’s interview with NBC, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out four tough preconditions for lifting economic pressure on the regime in Tehran: it should halt all uranium enrichment, agree to remove the uranium it has already enriched, close the underground enrichment facility at Fordow and stop all attempts to acquire plutonium which could be used in a nuclear bomb.
So despite the new face of Iranian politics, Hassan Rouhani will enter a General Assembly hall in New York on Tuesday that is both eagerly awaiting his plans and highly skeptical that he has the full backing of both the supreme leader and his military. With a popular mandate from the Iranian people, however, and some diplomatic momentum after his media appearances, Rouhani might nevertheless have a genuine chance to rework Iran’s foreign policy in a more pragmatic direction.