Iranians eager for change disappointed Rouhani didn’t offer more

Depending on their political views, Iranians saw both hopeful signs of potential improvement in relations with the West and a lack of concrete steps to get sanctions relief after President Hassan Rouhani, above, addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
(Brendan McDermid / Pool Photo)

TEHRAN -- Iranians pored over news accounts Wednesday of President Hassan Rouhani’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly, with those eager to break out of Iran’s isolation expressing disappointment that their new leader didn’t meet with President Obama or offer more concrete steps for sanctions relief.

Hard-liners, however, seemed mostly pleased with Rouhani’s steadfast defense Tuesday of Iran’s right to enrich uranium and develop its nuclear industry. Western countries accuse Iran of refining uranium for the purpose of building a nuclear bomb, and have made sanctions relief contingent on Tehran stopping the enrichment.

Rouhani’s late-afternoon speech in New York was carried live on Iranian state television, when it was well after midnight in Tehran. It was also hours beyond the normal 9 p.m. newspaper deadline for morning editions.

But in a sign of how keenly Iranians are following the prospects for change in their country’s long-hostile relations with the West, many of Iran’s leading newspapers delayed publication to include coverage of the new president’s debut on the world stage.


Newspaper vendors spread their wares on sidewalks lining busy streets, where those on foot and motorbikes drew up to read a wide spectrum of political analysis. Some grumbled as they read the accounts of Rouhani suggesting that the West has been inconsistent in its dealings with the Middle East, and his repetition of long-standing complaints about Washington and its allies.

“It’s all repetitive. There’s nothing new here,” groused one reader who would give only his first name, Hassan.

“Rouhani is talking about democracy and elections as if he were the president of Sweden or Switzerland,” he said, expressing disappointment at seeing no clear concessions on Iran’s disputed nuclear program, which Iranians view as what is needed to get relief from crippling economic sanctions.

Others, though, read into the address more nuanced overtures for better relations with the United States and its allies.

“Rouhani’s address was excellent, and I think Iran is ready to compromise on the nuclear issue, and on Syria and Lebanon. Why else would Rouhani have gone to New York?” said Ali Hasanzadeh, who voted for Rouhani, as he scanned the arrayed newspapers on a sidewalk near Tehran’s Contemporary Art Museum.

Several reform-minded commentators brushed off the failure of Rouhani and President Obama to meet on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering as a result of the backlash the Iranian leader would have faced from Islamic conservatives if he had attended an event where alcohol was served.

The planned venue for a hoped-for handshake between the men was a Tuesday luncheon hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The Iranian delegation declined to attend.

“Apart from wanting to avoid a party where alcohol was being served, President Rouhani probably didn’t want to expend all the opportunity for rapprochement in one go,” said Abolhasan Mokhtabad, a musicologist and staunch supporter of Rouhani.

He added that the president probably wanted to first see what transpires at a Thursday meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry before committing to any gesture of conciliation.

In a sign of disappointment that an end to sanctions isn’t as close as many Iranians had hoped, the value of their currency against dollars, euros and pounds dropped about 6% among street traders Wednesday. Iran’s rial has already lost more than half its pre-sanctions value, as oil revenues have declined and Iran has been shut out of international financial networks.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a pro-reform political scientist, told the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency that those who voted for Rouhani were disappointed his speech didn’t offer more. But Rouhani “said as much as he could, not as much as he would have liked,” said Zibakalam.

The reformist daily Bahar newspaper gave a positive account of Rouhani’s address, saying the more moderate leader, who replaced confrontational former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month, had “conveyed to the ears of the world Iran’s message of peace, hope, freedom and the injustice of sanctions.”

Conservative political analysts and newspapers aligned with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which enforces the religious leadership’s more hard-line political and social policies, applauded Rouhani’s criticism of the United States and Israel, even if he didn’t name them outright, as Ahmadinejad was wont to do.

Rouhani alluded to “three decades of crimes” against the Islamic Republic and the “violence” of U.S.-driven economic sanctions on his people. He also denounced U.S. drone strikes against “innocent civilians” and called for a halt to not-so-subtle U.S. and Israeli threats to bomb Iran when they speak of “keeping the military option on the table.”

“The simplest way to resolve the nuclear issue is the [West’s] recognition of Iran’s inalienable right of enrichment,” the Fars News Agency, a conservative mouthpiece, said of Rouhani’s message.

Kayhan, another publication aligned with the conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, focused its report on Obama’s “bragging.” Its account ignored Rouhani’s calls for Iran and the United States to bury the animosity that has characterized their relationship since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.


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Twitter: @cjwilliamslat

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Williams from Los Angeles.