A kinder, gentler Iran?
In an autumn ritual, an Iranian president is once more coming to New York for the United Nations’ annual meeting of the heads of state. Media frenzy is likely to follow, as the smiling visage of President Hassan Rouhani dominates the airways next week. Beyond vague pledges of cooperation and lofty rhetoric about turning a new page, the question remains how to assess the intentions of the new Iranian government. The early indications are that Rouhani has put together a seasoned team that seeks to both advance and legitimize Iran’s nuclear program.
One of the peculiarities of the Islamic Republic is that at times it seemingly floats its strategies in the media. On Sept. 3, a long editorial titled “A Realistic Initiative on the Nuclear Issue” appeared in Bahar, an Iranian newspaper with ties to the more moderate elements of the country’s elite.
The article stressed that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confrontational policies and reckless rhetoric had caused the international community to perceive Iran as threatening and dangerous. In that context, Iran’s quest for nuclear empowerment was bound to be resisted by the great powers. And cleverly manipulated by the United States and Israel, the United Nations censured Iran and imposed debilitating sanctions on its fledgling economy.
The editorial went on to say that to escape this predicament, Iran had to change its image. A state that is considered “trustworthy” and “accountable” is bound to be provided with some leeway. Iran can best achieve its nuclear aspirations not by making systematic concessions on the scope of its program but by altering the overall impression of its reliability as a state.
It appears that Rouhani is carefully following this script. One of his first acts as president was to appoint as his foreign minister Javad Zarif, an urbane diplomat unwisely purged by Ahmadinejad. Zarif’s superb skill as a negotiator, his easy access to Western power-brokers and his pragmatism are bound to impress Iran’s skeptical interlocutors.
The most contentious issue that has crossed Rouhani’s desk thus far is Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons against unarmed civilians. In the past, the ideological compulsions of the Islamic Republic would lead it to deny the charges, defend Syrian President Bashar Assad and accuse his detractors of fabricating the evidence. This time around, Rouhani and his functionaries have subtly distanced themselves from Assad, condemned the use of chemical weapons and welcomed Russia’s efforts to resolve the issue through the United Nations.
Along with tweets commemorating the Jewish High Holy Days, Rouhani has managed to reverse some of the reputational damage that the theocratic regime had suffered under his impetuous predecessor.
The new government’s soothing words have not lessened its determination to forge ahead with its nuclear program. Rouhani has stressed, as reported on state radio this month, that Iran “will not withdraw an iota from the definite rights of people.” That message was reinforced by the appointment of Ali Shamkhani to the powerful position of secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.
Shamkhani is a creature of the security services, one of the founding members of the Revolutionary Guard and a former defense minister. Throughout his career, Shamkhani has been involved with the nation’s nuclear program, procuring technologies for it and defending it. During his time as defense minister, he even subtly suggested the utility of nuclear arms in Iran’s contested regional environment.
“We have neighbors who, due to international competition, have gained nuclear weapons…. We have no other alternatives but to defend ourselves in view of these developments,” Shamkhani said in 2000.
If Zarif’s appointment is designed to placate the international community, Shamkhani’s selection is a signal to the hard-liners at home that Rouhani intends to preserve Iran’s nuclear prerogatives.
Rouhani’s attempt to refashion Iran’s image and temper its rhetoric should be welcomed. After eight years of Ahmadinejad provocations that often unhinged the international community, a degree of self-restraint is admirable. However, judge Tehran by its conduct and not its words.
It is not enough for Rouhani to condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Is he prepared to withdraw the Revolutionary Guard contingents that have done much to buttress Assad’s brutality?
It is not sufficient for Rouhani to speak of transparency; he must curb Iran’s troublesome nuclear activities and comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions.
And it is not enough for Rouhani to speak of a tolerant society unless he is prepared to free his many former comrades and colleagues who are languishing in prisons under false charges.
Rouhani’s reliability has to be measured by his actions, not by his speeches or tweets.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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