When the U.N. General Assembly gathers in New York next week, Iran will present a new face to the world. Whereas former Iranian president and notorious ideological firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was famous for using the General Assembly lectern to throw rhetorical firebombs, new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promises a more measured and pragmatic approach. Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust, and Rouhani criticized him for it during the campaign. Ahmadinejad said Israel should be wiped off the map of the Middle East, while Rouhani recently tweeted Rosh Hashanah greeting wishing the Jewish people Happy New Year. Ahmadinejad surrounded himself with former Republican Guard cronies, and Rouhani has handpicked moderates and centrists for key posts, to include foreign minister, oil minister, and chief of the national security commission.
“Both domestically and internationally, Rouhani has postured himself as the anti-Ahmadinejad, and he has been very critical of his predecessor,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former senior State Department official, and currently senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. The title of her recent essay reflects a belief that Rouhani may represent a historic opportunity: “Iran Surprises Itself and the World: A New President May Take His Country in a New Direction.”
Certainly the Obama administration has taken note of the very different signals broadcast from Tehran. After an exchange of letters, Obama and Rouhani may even meet at next week’s General Assembly. That would be the first face-to-face meeting between a U.S. and an Iranian president since the 1979 revolution that created the Islamic Republic.
Maloney was in the State Department in 2005 when Ahmadinejad first applied for a U.S. visa to attend the U.N. General Assembly, and there was a lot of controversy over granting it because of his outrageous statements. “And each year during his visit, Ahmadinejad managed to find a way to offend a new constituency and debase Iran’s reputation further. But in some ways, he proved a useful tool for U.S. policy,” she said in an interview. “In contrast, Rouhani is very clear about his determination to alter Iran’s poor image in the world.
The fact that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei allowed Rouhani to run a bold campaign in which he not only criticized the handling of Iran’s nuclear program, but adopted many of the slogans and positions of the opposition Green Movement that poured into Iranian streets in 2009 in response to a stolen election, suggests that the clerical regime is feeling extremely vulnerable. The clerics look at the instability throughout the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, much of it prompted by young people demanding greater freedoms, and they see that tide of democracy and disorder threatening to overwhelm an autocratic regime like the Islamic Republic. By the time it became clear that Rouhani was going to adopt many of the slogans and positions of the Green Movement, the regime recognized it could not manipulate the election results again and risk another spasm of street protests.
Iran also feels uneasy over to forcefully back the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war, especially after Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons to kill more than a thousand people. For many Iranians, that was too reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons to kills tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. Iranian leaders also fear a military strike on their nuclear infrastructure by Israel. Rouhani also understands he can never turn around Iran’s moribund economy, and create jobs for disaffected youth, as long as the country remains isolated by international sanctions.
For all of those reasons, Rouhani’s election may represent the most hopeful development in U.S. – Iranian relations in decades.“I’m not wildly optimistic that we will reach wholesale agreements with Iran on both its nuclear program and Syria, and the Iranian regime still needs a veneer of anti-Americanism to justify its existence,” said Maloney. “But I do think progress on Iran’s nuclear program and support for Assad is much more possible today under Rouhani than before his election. Any wholesale rehabilitation of Iran or fundamental transformation in U.S. – Iranian relations, however, is hard to imagine as long as Supreme Leader Khamenei remains in power.”