Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose public support after a trip to the U.S. outweighed the detractors who tried to pelt his convoy with eggs, also has backing from where it matters most: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
After he returned from a trip to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, dozens of people tried to block Rouhani’s way, chanting anti-U.S. slogans. The demonstrators were upset at a 15-minute phone call with President Barack Obama on Sept. 27, which marked the highest-level encounter between the two governments since before Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979.
With fewer protesters than supporters, and praise from Tehran-based newspapers and state television programs, Rouhani may have the backing needed to pursue his diplomatic overture, including the crucial support of Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters. Protesters, some whom carried signs saying “negotiations with the Great Satan at what price?” were outnumbered by about three-to-one, according to images on state TV and on the website of state-run Mehr news agency.
“A decision has been taken by the Iranian establishment to move in the direction of dialogue with the U.S.,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Middle East politics at Qatar University in Doha. “Iran knows that the source of trouble is Washington and believes that as long as it speaks to Washington there will be hope for a solution.”
Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology has led Obama and his allies in Europe to squeeze the country’s economy with tighter sanctions, which led to oil output falling to the lowest level since 1990. The U.S. and Israel have also threatened military action to prevent the Islamic republic from obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran denies that it’s seeking to do so.
It was his pledge to resolve this dispute and revive an economy struggling with a currency crisis that helped propel Rouhani into the presidency. The election of the former nuclear negotiator helped the Iranian rial recover after losing more than half of its dollar value in the 12 months before his surprising first-round win in June.
West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark crude, has dropped 5.6 percent in September, putting it on course for its first monthly decline since May, as concern receded that the U.S. would attack Syria, an ally of Iran, over its use of chemical weapons and after Rouhani told the UN his nation was ready to enter talks “without delay.”
From the outset, his challenge has been to strike a balance between delivering on his pledges and avoiding the appearance of a weak leader compromising on Iran’s rights, a position that would offer ammunition for politicians who are against any rapprochement with the U.S.
The conversation with Obama “was mainly about the nuclear issue,” Rouhani told reporters at Tehran’s airport, according to the state-run Mehr news agency. “I told him this program is not only the right of Iranians but also their pride and the U.S. president acknowledged this.”
About a hundred supporters cheered the Iranian president as he returned, according to Mehr. A smaller number tried to block his way, most of them young members of the Basij militia, a volunteer auxiliary force controlled by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mehr reported. One of the protesters threw a shoe at Rouhani’s car and the Shargh daily said some attempted to throw eggs at him.
Rouhani “enjoys support from the populous who voted for him and the politicians who are within his leanings, but like in any other body politique, there are many different schools of thought, so there are his detractors,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
What matters most is the support Rouhani enjoys from Khamenei, “which makes all the difference in the world,” Karasik said. Apart from the favorable reaction from the media, Khamenei has also refrained from criticizing the soft-spoken cleric for his conversation with Obama.
History suggests that such an encounter wouldn’t have happened without the consent of the Supreme Leader. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton had tried to stage a chance meeting at the UN General Assembly with then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, according to “The Twilight War” by U.S. historian David Crist.
Concerned that the Iranian leader didn’t have Khamenei’s blessing, his aides spirited him out from a different exit. Clinton, in an interview yesterday with ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” said he had hoped for a similar opportunity that was afforded to Obama.
‘Promises on Credit’
Yet just as he is under pressure from Western powers to prove that his pledges are more than words, Rouhani faces a chorus of hardliners at home, eager to show that he came back with nothing more than empty promises.
“Beyond the extreme and optimistic excitement, the suitcase of the Iranian delegation upon its return didn’t have much in it aside from a handful of promises on credit,” the Kayhan newspaper wrote in its editorial yesterday. The Raja News website described the exchange between the two presidents as a “strange, useless action void of results.” This contact endangered “the most important asset of the Iranian nation, its revolutionary brand.”
Republican Guards chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, while backing Rouhani’s overall remarks and actions in New York as “in line with Khamenei and the regime’s policies,” disapproved of the phone exchange.
“The president displayed a powerful and appropriate stance during this trip,” Jafari said in an interview with the Tasnim news agency today. “It would have been preferable, in the same way that no time was dedicated for a face-to-face meeting with Obama, to not accept the phone call with him either and to postpone this until after the U.S. takes practical actions and the sincerity of its deeds can be gauged.”
Karasik, who said incidents involving eggs and shoe throwing in Iran are rare, raised the possibility that the protests were “staged” by the president’s opponents. “They were trying to make a spectacle and succeeded,” he said.
The Iranian rial briefly appreciated to 29,700 against the U.S. dollar in unregulated trading after the announcement of the phone exchange from 30,600 rials. It later weakened to 30,300 at 2 p.m. local time today, 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 is still 19 percent stronger than the day before Rouhani’s election victory.
The support Rouhani currently enjoys may not be unlimited, according to Zweiri, the Qatar University professor. In an interview two days ago with Fars news agency, Kayhan’s editor-in-chief, Hossein Shariatmadari, said Rouhani’s interaction with Obama was an “ugly” move. Kayhan’s head is appointed by Khamenei.
“This may have been Shariatmadari speaking as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper or he may have been speaking on behalf of Khamenei indicating that ‘our eyes are on you’,” Zweiri said. “The Supreme Leader does not want to give the impression that Rouhani has everything in his own hands.”
While “fortunes can change quickly,” Rouhani’s “detractors seem to be at the fringe” for now, Karasik said.
In a meeting with top officials, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said that while “hasty opinions” should be avoided, what has transpired from the president’s trip is the “start of a fair way to overcome pretexts and solve Iran’s foreign policy problems.”