Iran's Rouhani caught between eager world at UN, worried hardliners at home (+video)
Expectations soared as Iranian President Rouhani arrived at the UN, but he passed on the opportunity for a historic handshake with President Obama.
Is Iran still a revolutionary state, bent on âresistanceâ against US and Israeli âhegemonsâ and âmilitarism?" 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'sÂ high-profile speechÂ to the United Nations yesterday âÂ his first step onto the world stage since winning June elections with the slogan âhope and prudence.âÂ
When the centrist president finally stood at the marbled UN podium inÂ hisÂ 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 Iranâs 1979 Islamic revolution, and reformists in Iran and worldwide who want and expect substantial change â now.
Expectations could not have beenÂ higher, asÂ a well-orchestrated Iranian charm offensiveÂ arrived inÂ New York this week.Â OfficialsÂ promised new diplomatic flexibility and an end to the bombast that marked the previous eight years under arch-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
âPeople 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 â for us all,â Rouhani told the UN chamberÂ Tuesday.
Rouhani, a regime insider who negotiated an initial nuclear deal with European powers a decade ago, said he was âdeeply optimisticâ about the future, and said Iran was ready to âmanage [its] differencesâ with the US and âremove any and all reasonable concernsâ about its controversial nuclear program.
When Rouhani says, â'We can find a framework to manage our differences,â that indicates Iran is prepared for a deal,â says oneÂ reform-leaningÂ Iranian analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named.
Despite Rouhani's popular mandate, and current support from Iranâs highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he is facingÂ low-boilÂ opposition from hardline circles that he is moving too far, too fast.
That mayÂ explainÂ 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 Rouhaniâs speech, which was aimed at his conservative audience inside Iran. In strong, sometimes elliptical language, he echoed the tone and positionsÂ alsoÂ taken by Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Khamenei.
âCoercive economic and military policiesâŚnegates peace, security, human dignity, and exalted human ideals,â Rouhani said,Â referring to US-led sanctions against Iran, and US military efforts from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya.Â
The âpersistence of Cold War mentality and bipolar division of the world into âsuperior usâ and âinferior others,â Rouhani said, fanned âfear and phobia around the emergence of new actors [like Iran] on the world scene.âÂ
HeÂ repeatedÂ aÂ Khamenei theme of building upÂ âimaginary threats."
âOne such imaginary threat is the so-called âIranian threat,â which has been employed as an excuse to justify a long catalogue of crimes and catastrophic practices over the past three decades,â said Rouhani, citing âthe arming of Saddam Hussein with chemical weaponsâ and âsupportingâ the Taliban and Al Qaeda as examples of some of those crimes âÂ 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.
âAs an Iranian, I am satisfiedâÂ with the speech,Â the analyst in Tehran says. âHe started by referring to the history of unfair behavior toward IranâŚit seems idealistic but it was reallyÂ necessary,â to remind his audience of the roots of decades of mutual hostility between Iran and its enemies.Â
No more enemies
Rouhani also hit other perennial revolutionary buttons for Iran. Without mentioning Israel by name, he said: âApartheid as a concept can hardly describe the crimes and the institutionalized aggression against the innocent Palestinian people.â
On Syria, he blamed outside forces for âinfusion of arms and intelligenceâŚand active support of extremist groupsâ â without noting Iranâs similar clandestine support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
On terrorism, Rouhani condemned it as a âviolent scourgeâ and said âkilling of innocent people represent the ultimate inhumanity of extremism and violence.â He made no mention of the official US view that Iran remains the chief state sponsor of terrorism.
From drone attacks on âinnocent people in the name of combating terrorismâ to assassinations of Iranâs nuclear scientists to US-led sanctions that haveÂ causedÂ Iranâs economyÂ to shrivel, Rouhani listed reasons to be wary.
But he did not use the term âenemyâ or other belittling vocabulary long common in Iranâs revolutionary discourse.Â He later told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in an interview thatÂ Americans âare very near and dear to the hearts of the Iranian people,â and âÂ in a direct departure from the Holocaust-questioning Ahmadinejad â said the World War II Nazi crimes against Jews were âreprehensible and condemnable.â
âThe taking of human life is contemptible,â Rouhani told CNN. âIt makes no difference if that life is a Jewish life, Christian, or Muslim. For us, it is the same.â
The scaling back of angry rhetoric isÂ 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 âIranâs pursuit of nuclear weaponsâ âÂ whichÂ Iran publiclyÂ denies andÂ US intelligence agencies conclude was halted by Iran in 2003. But he alsoÂ noted that Iranians had been âpoisoned in the many tens of thousandsâ by chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.
âWeâre not seeking regime change and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy,â said Obama. Until yesterday, the only explicit statement to Tehran that the US was not pursuing âregime changeâ in recent years â amid a âcovert warâ that has included the assassinations of nuclear scientists in Tehran, unexplained explosions, espionage, Stuxnet and other computer viruses âÂ was embedded in a private letter sent years ago by Obama to Khamenei.
âWe should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that theÂ Iranian [nuclear] programÂ is peaceful,â Obama said. âThe roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.â
How far that path can go depends on the power of naysayers in both Tehran and Washington.
A taste ofÂ the pushback came in the hardline Kayhan newspaper,Â where writer Mohammad Imani asked readers to âimagineâ what might happen if âa taboo is brokenâ and there is an Obama-Rouhani handshake, or even a typical Iranian greeting among men of an embrace and a kiss.
âThose who for some time have been envious of eating this forbidden fruit will be drowned in excitement for hours. Then what?â writes Mr. Imani, according to a translation by Al-Monitor. âSay 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?â
Mojtaba Mousavi, an Iranian political commentator close to leadership circles, told The New York Times in Tehran, âOur 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.â
Still, Rouhani ended his speech saying a âbright future awaits the world,â and quoted the Quran: âAnd We proclaimed in the Psalms, after We had proclaimed in the Torah, that My virtuous servants will inherit the earth.â