Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who swept to power with a vow to improve relations with the world, has a pulpit to do so this week with his first speech to the United Nations.
Rohani, 64, will address the UN General Assembly less than two months after replacing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His comments come as sanctions against the country fuel joblessness and inflation, and as Israel and the U.S. threaten military force to end what they say is an attempt to build atomic weapons.
Before departing from Tehran’s airport earlier today, Rohani said he will aim “to show the true face of Iranians to the world,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
The new president will tomorrow blend a softer tone with gestures to hasten a return to dialogue, possibly offering to allow more open inspection of nuclear sites, said Ali Ansari, director of the Institute of Iranian Studies at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland.
With opponents at home likely to pounce on any delay in delivering tangible results, Rohani needs to act quickly “to push back against the inevitable pressure from conservatives as well as to the expectations of the public,” said Trita Parsi, author of “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.”
A Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report estimated in April that sanctions had cost Iran more than $100 billion in lost foreign investment and oil revenue. Inflation has almost doubled in two years to 39 percent last month, official figures show.
“The likelihood that he will do something bold in the address is there,” Parsi, who is also president of the National Iranian-American Council in Washington, said. “It would be a huge missed opportunity for Rohani with all of these expectations to come to New York and give a speech that no one can remember.”
The Iranian rial appreciated to 29,350 per U.S. dollar today in unregulated trading from 30,700 on Sept. 18, according to figures compiled by Daily Rates for Gold Coins & Foreign Currencies, a Facebook page used by traders and companies in Iran and abroad. The currency has strengthened about 23 percent since June 13, the day before the presidential vote.
Rohani may leave his mark with more than a speech. Although there is no indication of a meeting scheduled between Rohani and President Barack Obama, when asked about the likelihood of it, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Sept. 19 “it’s possible.”
Amir Mohebian, a political analyst who says he’s advised presidents including Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said in an interview that the Iranian leadership had received a letter from Obama offering to lift sanctions if Iran ends “ambiguities” over its nuclear program. The message had been welcomed in Tehran, Mohebian said.
With Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the key decision maker on key affairs of state, Rohani’s power to alter the nuclear policy and end the sanctions on his own is limited. Success may depend on his ability to leverage connections with Iran’s powerful non-elected bodies and ultimately with Khamenei, whom he first met four decades ago during the early days of Islamist opposition to the Shah.
Khamenei last week called for “heroic flexibility” in negotiations, in a sign that Rohani may have his support as he seeks to improve relations with the U.S. The two men met ahead of Rohani’s departure with the Supreme Leader wishing him “success,” according to Khamenei’s official website.
Rohani’s trip comes on the heels of statements from Iranian officials in past weeks aimed at promoting what appears to be Iran’s political relaxation.
His government’s use of social media has included both the president and his foreign minister wishing Jews a happy Jewish New Year on Twitter. Last week, a dozen political prisoners were freed, half of them linked to mass street protests that followed the disputed 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad.
Speaking today, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei said Khamenei has pardoned some 80 individuals guilty of political or “security” crimes, though he didn’t specify whether those freed last week were included in the count, the state-run Fars news agency reported.
In a Sept. 20 article in the Washington Post, Rohani wrote that global politics is no longer a “zero-sum game,” and urged leaders to “respond genuinely” to his efforts to engage in “constructive dialogue.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is due to speak at the UN on Sept. 30 and meet with Obama at the White House that day, has already portrayed Rohani’s moderate tone as cover to continue efforts to develop a nuclear bomb.
“We shouldn’t blindly accept the deceitful words of the Iranian president,” Netanyahu’s office said Sept. 19 in a statement. “The Iranians are using spin in the media in order to continue to spin their centrifuges.”
Expectations are high among Iranians who voted for Rohani that he’ll improve relations with the world and bring relief to the economy.
Though interactions and meetings between the U.S. and Iranian presidents or their foreign ministers would carry a symbolic weight after decades of frozen ties, they are “not crucial,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Syracuse University in the U.S.
“What’s important, and perhaps the right course of action, is for them to agree to start serious negotiations,” Boroujerdi said.
Following her meeting at the UN today with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represents the UN Security Council powers plus Germany in nuclear talks, said negotiations are scheduled for next month in October. Zarif is also set to meet foreign ministers of China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S. and Germany while in New York, Ashton told reporters.
Ashton said the two discussed the way forward on the nuclear conflict and said she had been “struck” by Zarif’s “energy and determination.”
“Ahmadinejad set the bar very low,” said Ansari, referring to speeches in which the former president used the UN podium to call for the downfall of Israel and “American imperialism,” and question the Holocaust. “It won’t be difficult for Rohani to come and make a speech that will be seen as markedly different from what Ahmadinejad used to do.”
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