Iran opens its fist

Gary Sick writes: He came to New York. He saw almost everyone. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, may not have conquered, but at least he seems to have persuaded John Kerry and Barack Obama that his proposals for negotiating an end to the US-Iran conflict deserve to be taken seriously. When President Obama picked up his phone in the Oval Office on Friday to bid farewell to President Rouhani with the Persian phrase Khodahafez (“God be with you”), there was the sense that a tectonic shift between Washington and Tehran was taking place.

The Rouhani blitz was regarded by many cynics as nothing but a charm offensive. Of course, in one sense that is what it was. Rouhani dominated the media, with half a dozen one-on-one interviews, a well written and conciliatory op-ed in the Washington Post, a seemingly endless series of meetings with curated groups of journalists, scholars, former US government officials, business executives, and a throng of his fellow Iranians, many of whom had taken refuge in the United States from the regime he represents. He spoke to the UN General Assembly (the ostensible purpose of his visit), to the Non-Aligned Movement (which Iran chairs), and to a collection of some two hundred members of the Asia Society and the Council on Foreign Relations at a midtown hotel.

I watched him in the two meetings that I attended and in most of his televised appearances. Rouhani is a man of considerable gravitas. He is serious, businesslike, and fully in command of his brief. Except for the formal speeches, he spoke without notes and responded directly and thoughtfully to the many questions directed at him. He spoke in Persian, except for an occasional English phrase, but he listened to his English-speaking audience without simultaneous translation, and his responses indicated that he grasped not only the words but also the nuances. Rouhani is a cleric, and he wears the robes and turban appropriate to his status. But he prefers to be addressed as Doctor Rouhani, in recognition of his PhD in law from Glasgow Caledonian University. Addressing members of New York think tanks, he reminded them that until recently he was one of them, running the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran. That, however, is only a small part of his résumé.

He was national security adviser to presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, and he has been the personal representative of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for nearly a quarter of a century. In those capacities, and other senior posts, he has been associated with virtually every security and foreign policy decision made by the Islamic Republic of Iran since at least the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s. Rouhani’s close ties to Khamenei were on display as he prepared to depart for the United States. Khamenei appeared before the leadership of the powerful and conservative Revolutionary Guards Corps to remind them politely but firmly that their proper concern was national security, not politics. Since the Revolutionary Guards played a major part in undermining both of Rouhani’s predecessors, this was a unique and unequivocal demonstration of solidarity. It does not, however, guarantee indefinite support for Rouhani’s initiatives. The Guards and the senior clerical establishment will look for results and weigh their own interests. Thus far, Rouhani, with the help of the Leader, has stayed ahead of his domestic and foreign opposition, but in New York he and his associates gave every indication of being men in a hurry. [Continue reading…]

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