September 23, 2016
Iran’s President Rouhani Plays it Safe in New York
By Barbara Slavin
In a carefully calibrated performance, Rouhani checked the boxes for his briefest visit to the UN General Assembly since he became Iran’s president in 2013.
Spending only two days in New York, he met with Muslim American leaders, held bilateral talks with key European counterparts and the president of Turkey, attended an off-record session with American think tankers and other Iran experts, gave the obligatory speech to the United Nations and conducted a press conference that broke no new ground.
There was no handshake with President Barack Obama despite the fact that Obama is on his way out of office after spearheading a landmark nuclear accord last year that traded significant curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities for relief of crippling economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Concerned about potential backlash at home from hardliners who opposed the deal – some because they failed at an earlier attempt at diplomacy – Rouhani praised the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as “a very important agreement that will be safeguarded through history,” but complained that the United States had not fully fulfilled its part of the bargain.
Speaking to journalists a day after the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) approved a license for the Boeing Corp. to sell civilian airliners to Iran – a megadeal that reverses decades of U.S. sanctions on such sales and will provide Iranians a much safer way to travel -- Rouhani quibbled that it had taken OFAC eight months to do so following Iran’s full implementation of JCPOA provisions.
OFAC had ample reasons to carefully vet the deal – potentially worth more than $17 billion and 100,000 U.S. jobs –to make sure that Iran would not obtain sensitive technology with possible military applications and that the planes would be restricted to civilian use. OFAC also needs to approve financing, which could bring added benefits to Iran if a major foreign financial institution becomes involved.
Rouhani, however, chose to see the glass half-empty lest he be accused of being overly solicitous of the United States. The Obama administration, he complained, has not been able to convince major foreign banks to return to the Iran market even though they are now allowed to do so.
“The American Treasury doesn’t speak to them [big banks] in a very clear fashion,” Rouhani said. “They frighten the big banks with the threat of potential action” under continuing U.S. sanctions that forbid Iran from contact with the U.S. financial system.
Many foreign banks have been reluctant to return to Iran because of shortcomings in the Iranian banking sector.
Rouhani did express confidence that the JCPOA would outlive the Obama administration, whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is the next U.S. president. This is a multinational agreement blessed by the UN Security Council, Rouhani said. “If someone is casting a shadow of doubt [over the deal] we must defend its merits vigorously,” he said.
Assuming the United States also continues to abide by the agreement, the JCPOA should ensure that Iran does not have the requisite nuclear fuel to develop a nuclear weapon for more than a decade. But the agreement does not resolve the myriad other U.S.-Iran grievances, from Iran’s continued imprisonment of Iranian-Americans and other dual nationals to the two countries’ support for opposing sides in the region’s many conflicts.
Among the biggest hurdles to a wider rapprochement is the Islamic Republic’s backing for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At his news conference on Thursday, Rouhani was asked by Washington Post reporter, Carol Morello, why his government is continuing to support “a cold-blooded killer” responsible for most of the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria since 2011.
Rouhani deflected the question by noting that “the Syria issue does not deal with the president of Syria only.” He proceeded to recount atrocities by groups such as the self-styled Islamic State. “These savages burn people and behead people,” Rouhani said.
He also rejected a proposal by Secretary of State John Kerry to ground Syrian and Russian airplanes that have been attacking civilians and more recently, international aid convoys, shredding any hope of a durable cease-fire. Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State are well armed with tanks and missiles but lack an air force, Rouhani said. “If you ground flights, you are helping the terrorists.”
Rouhani also took several swipes at archrival Saudi Arabia while insisting that Iran remains open to improved relations.
Despite Rouhani’s comments and in some ways because of them, this Iranian president inspires confidence that the nuclear deal will hold and that more U.S.-Iran cooperation – or at least consultation – is possible in the future.
Rouhani is no “moderate” – an elusive concept in the Islamic Republic -- but a shrewd pragmatist who has shown real ability to achieve progress on the international front compared with his erratic predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the idealistic but relatively weak Mohammad Khatami, who preceded Ahmadinejad.
A pillar of the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979, Rouhani knows how far he can go in interpreting the foreign policy mandate given him by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As much as many Iranians would have loved Rouhani to shake Obama’s hand at the United Nations this week, Rouhani played it safe.
To continue to make progress in re-integrating Iran into the international community and ultimately to restore normal relations with the United States, Rouhani and his faction have to survive. And even this election cycle’s brutal U.S. presidential contest is a walk in the park compared to the life and death politics of Iran.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center.