News / Middle East

Column: Rouhani Charts Cautious Course in UN Debut

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters September 24, 2013.Iran's President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters September 24, 2013.
x
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters September 24, 2013.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters September 24, 2013.
Midway through Hassan Rouhani’s debut on the international stage, his American reviews are mixed.
 
The Iranian president bypassed a chance to shake hands and chat with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly despite anticipation in both Iran and the United States that such an encounter would happen. “Too complicated” for the Iranian leader to make their schedules mesh even for five minutes, according to a senior White House official who briefed reporters late Tuesday. Not “sufficient time to really coordinate the meeting,” was how Rouhani put it to CNN.
 
Rouhani’s much-anticipated speech to the General Assembly sounded like it had been written by a committee – with a turgid beginning that criticized the United States – without naming it – for relying on “archaic ways of preserving domination” and dividing the world into a “superior us and inferior others.”
 
But just when it seemed as though he was channeling his obstreperous predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani pivoted to declarations of Iranian good will and cooperation.
 
“Iran is no threat to the world or the region,” he declared. The Islamic Republic “will act responsibly” and “seeks to resolve problems not create them.”
 
Rouhani said he had “listened carefully” to Obama’s remarks hours earlier. If U.S. officials “refrain from following the short-sighted interests of war mongers and pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences,” Rouhani said, without identifying the “war mongers or pressure groups.” He added that Iran has no desire to increase tensions with the United States and is seeking a resolution to the nuclear dispute that removes “all reasonable concerns” about the nature of the program while accepting Iran’s “right” to domestic enrichment of uranium.
 
The United States, of course, has not accepted Iran's “right” to the full nuclear fuel cycle and Tehran is under six U.N. Security Council resolutions for failing to suspend uranium enrichment and for not answering questions about possible military dimensions of the program.
 
Obama, for his part, listed resolving the Iran nuclear issue as his top foreign policy priority for the remainder of his second term – a reflection of the significance of the issue in terms of the region as a whole as well as U.S. optimism that Iran is finally at the point where it will seriously negotiate the nuclear issue because of the impact of U.S.-led sanctions.
 
“We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful,” the U.S. president said, though adding that “to succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.”
 
Reaction to the dueling speeches was fairly predictable, with many in the U.S. Congress voicing skepticism about Iran’s willingness to compromise and Obama’s determination, as he repeated on Tuesday, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons by military means if necessary.
 
The real test of whether an agreement is possible will come in negotiations, which are to be led on both sides by the country’s most senior diplomats – Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. These two will meet for the first time on Thursday – the highest level U.S.-Iran encounter since Colin Powell briefly chatted with his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharazzi in 2001 -- along with the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany to probe for ways of ending a prolonged stalemate in negotiations. At the same time, Rouhani will continue his “charm offensive” by meeting with representatives of U.S. think tanks Thursday evening and delivering speeches to a disarmament summit and a meeting of non-aligned nations.
 
Beyond the soothing rhetoric and the careful choreography, there does appear to be a new receptivity to agreement in both the U.S. and Iranian administrations. U.S. officials believe that Rouhani has a real mandate to reach an accord in part because U.S.-led sanctions have had such a draconian effect on the Iranian economy. And Obama is in need of a second term foreign policy legacy.
 
In his U.N. speech, Rouhani blasted sanctions as “inhumane and against peace” and asserted that “It is not the state and political elite but the common people who are victimized by sanctions.” Rouhani did not mention why those sanctions had been imposed, but he clearly understands that the only way to get them removed is by reaching a nuclear accord.
 
Rouhani also finessed the Israel conundrum by criticizing the country, without naming it, for oppressing the Palestinians. He did not use the term “Zionist entity” favored by the regime since the 1979 revolution and he didn’t mention the Holocaust, which Ahmadinejad routinely denied. Later on CNN, Rouhani -- who punted a question on the issue last week by NBC -- said the Nazi murder of six million Jews was a “crime in history” that was “reprehensible and condemnable.”
 
The cleric, who studied and got a doctorate in Scotland, also offered a few words in English with a strong Persian accent: “I bring peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans,” he told Christiane Amanpour.
 
U.S. officials remain optimistic despite the fact that presidents of the United States and Iran have often passed each other like ships in the night – something that also happened in 2000 when reformist Mohammad Khatami was U.S. president and Bill Clinton was the American president with the outstretched empty palm.
 
“We believe that the new Iranian government under President Rouhani does present an opportunity to make progress on a diplomatic negotiation; that they’ve indicated a seriousness that we had not seen under the previous government,” the senior White House official said. “The fact of the matter is we're going to continue to test this, because the achievement of an agreement on Iran's nuclear program, as the President said today, would address a significant national security concern in the United States and the world, and also potentially reduce tensions more broadly in the region.”

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Multimedia Obama Defends Immigration Action

Obama says with his executive action on immigration, enforcement resources will be focused on 'felons, not families; criminals, not children' More

US-Led Airstrikes in Syria Kill Over 900: Monitoring Group

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the toll includes more than 50 civilians, five of them women and eight of them children More

Report: Obama Broadens US Combat Role in Afghanistan

The New York Times says resident Barack Obama has signed a classified order extending the role of US troops in Afghanistan for another year More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid