Last week, Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, embarked on a so-called “charm offensive.” 18 prominent political prisoners were released on September 18th. Social media sites including Twitter and Facebook were temporarily unlocked. Rouhani expressed his openness to at least a short-term fix about nuclear arms and exchanged letters with President Barack Obama.
Rouhani’s actions have occurred just before he is to make a speech before the United Nations General Assembly on September 24th. His predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had used such speeches as a platform to criticize and censure his country’s enemies. In contrast, Rouhani and Obama are said to be planning to “arrange to run into each other” at the U.N., in what would be the first time the leaders of the two countries have met since the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown in 1979.
The Iranian president has been taking to Western media outlets to communicate his views. In a rare television interview with NBC’s Ann Curry, Rouhani stated that Iran would never “seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons” and that he himself had “full power and complete authority” to strike a deal about the nuclear issue. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, he expressed his willingness to restart negotiations with the U.S. about Iran’s nuclear program. Since last August, he has used his Twitter account to express opinions not in keeping with those of his predecessors, including wishing “all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah.”
This rapid “change of pace” is “unprecedented” in the Islamic Republic’s 34-year history, the Economist points out. Not only Rouhani but also Obama have reason to be eager to embark on some kind of rapprochement.
1. Years of United Nations sanctions have taken their toll on Iran, reducing its oil revenue by more than half, making it essentially impossible for international banking to go on and crashing the currency. With medicines in short supply, Reformist politician Zahra Eshraghi, a granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution, says in the Guardian that even hardliners have realized they must “come to terms” with the necessity of dialogue with the United States.
As M. Hashem Pesaran writes in the Guardian, continuing sanctions ultimately radicalizes “the extreme groups further and, by distorting the functioning of the markets, encourage[s] economic manipulations that largely benefit those radical groups that are close to the regime.”
2. Rouhani is only a few months into his presidency after an election in which he won a “landslide victory.” While he currently has a popular mandate, it remains to be seen if the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will continue to allow Rouhani to carry out a program of “constructive engagement.”
3. In contrast, Obama is in his second and final term in office and faces the risk of becoming a lame-duck president. Having been criticized for wavering about what measures to take regarding Syria, he and his administration now have a “chance to pull off something big” with Iran.
4. Rouhani has been called the “diplomatic sheikh” for his years of experience in diplomacy and foreign policy, including serving as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. His reputation and his recent actions suggest that he wishes to use diplomacy to ease his country’s isolation, to the approbation of the Obama administration.
Rumors suggest that the Iranians may offer to close the nuclear plant, Fordo, whose existence was revealed in 2009. Rouhani has already transferred authority over Iran’s nuclear program from the national security council to the foreign ministry, whose leader, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is described by the Economist as a “moderate former diplomat with deep knowledge of America.” This move has led some to ask if there might be a way for Iran to produce a “very limited amount of nuclear fuel” that would not be used to produce a bomb, as feared by Israel and other nations.
Hardliners have plenty of reason to express caution. Israeli Prime Minister Benhamin Netanyahu has called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and has spoken out against Iran’s nuclear program in the past week. The possibility of the United States entering negotiations with Iran could lead to a “potential showdown” between Netanyahu and Obama. Israeli skeptics are warning that Iran’s seeking to negotiate is a change of “tactics not strategy” and that the country is still set on advancing its nuclear program.
Not all U.S. officials are convinced about Rouhani’s overtures, either. After Iranian energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi pledged more cooperation at the annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said, in words that resonate,”the proof will be in the pudding. The words have to be followed by concrete action.”
Indeed. Rouhani’s words need to be backed up with actual changes, including allowing international monitors to inspect its nuclear facilities and granting women far more rights. Are the Iranian president’s gestures only symbolic or really signs that his government wishes to start a broad dialogue with the United States and the world?
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