Rouhani’s U.N. charm offensive

Barbara Slavin reports: In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24, Rouhani protected his flank against domestic hard-liners by bemoaning efforts by unnamed nations to divide the world into a “superior us and inferior others,” to oppress the Palestinians and kill “innocent civilians” with drones. After a meandering start, however, the speech pivoted to promising that Iran would “act responsibly” and “seek to resolve problems, not create them.”

On Sept. 25, he addressed media executives in the morning and former US officials and proliferation experts in the evening — the latter a group of about 40 that included former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former nuclear negotiators Robert Einhorn and Gary Samore and former Ambassadors Bill Luers, Frank Wisner and William Miller.

“He’s a serious fellow and demonstrated tremendous self-confidence,” Gary Sick, a White House National Security Council staffer during the 1979-81 hostage crisis, told Al-Monitor. Yet, Sick said that when he pressed Rouhani at the Sept. 25 dinner on whether Iran was ready to try again for a “grand bargain” similar to a proposal made in 2003 that the United States rebuffed, Rouhani answered, “‘We need to take this a step at a time,’ not in one leap,” Sick said.

On the morning of Sept. 26, Rouhani told a UN meeting on disarmament that Iran wanted a world without nuclear weapons and that Israel — which is believed to have at least 100 nuclear weapons — should join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as Iran did under the shah. Since Israel does not admit it has nuclear weapons, that appears to be quite a stretch.

At night, Rouhani massaged an audience of about 300 — think tankers with a sprinkling of journalists and a few unusual guests of the Iranian mission to the UN including sports promoter Don King. Rouhani began by saying that he was addressing the group as a “colleague,” because prior to becoming president, he headed the Center for Strategic Research, a government-affiliated think tank.

But his comments were mostly platitudes about avoiding a “lose-lose approach” to world problems, asserting Iran’s right to play “a major role at the global level,” and focusing on the future, or as he put it, turning the “turbulent past into a beacon lighting the path forward.”

Asked by Al-Monitor if he would permit the United States to open an interests section in Tehran to process visas for Iranians, he talked instead about the importance of encouraging more academic and other exchanges with the United States. “Initial steps would have to be taken by the people,” he said, without explaining how that could be facilitated.

On the Holocaust — an issue that came up in almost every meeting with Americans Rouhani held this week — he said that Iran condemned “the crimes by the Nazis in World War II.” He added, “Many people were killed including a group of Jewish people.” One might argue that 6 million people are hardly just a “group,” but Rouhani had already gone about as far as he apparently felt he could in trying to overcome memories of Ahmadinejad’s chronic Holocaust denial without upsetting his right flank at home.

Asked if Iran would support a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, Rouhani repeated a formula first introduced by former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, by saying, “Whatever the people of Palestine accept, we shall accept as well.” But he did not give details, so it was not clear whether by “people of Palestine,” he also meant millions of Palestinian refugees living outside the West Bank and Gaza — a non-starter for Israel. [Continue reading…]

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