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Is Iran's New President Capable of Talking His Way to Peace with Israel?

At this year's UN General Assembly, instead of making assertions about Israelis massacring landowners and railing against "Zionist murderers," Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani moved away from the anti-Israel diatribes and focused on the improvement...
October 9, 2013, 1:30pm

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaking in New York. Image via

One leader's speech at this year's UN General Assembly was notably different from those of the country's past leaders. Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, moved away from the diatribes of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, about Israelis massacring landowners and "Zionist murderers." Instead, he focused on the improvement of his country's relations with others around the world.

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Rouhani has cast himself as a moderate committed to international cooperation. Speaking in the New York chamber, Rouhani adopted a startling new reconciliatory discourse, going as far as to hail the United States as a "great nation," presumably to Iranian hardliners. Improving relations with the US means that, by default, Iran will also have to improve relations with Israel, allies of the US.

The Iranian president then reiterated his commitment to cooperation and multilateralism rather than unilateralism and militarism, in a process he's referred to as "constructive engagement." Rouhani told the UN General Assembly, "Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions." The Iranian president stated that Tehran was ready to engage "immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the UN General Assembly.

A week later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened his address with his customary Biblical references to the ancient Jewish people returning to their ancestral homeland. He then argued that the international community should not be deceived by Rouhani’s language and proposals.

"When it comes to Iran's nuclear weapons program," he said, "the only difference between them is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf's clothing, Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing—a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community."

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While Rouhani may not have explicitly mentioned Israel in his General Assembly address, he started his presidency by describing Israel as "a sore" that has "been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years." And, in response, it was apparent throughout Netanyahu’s UN speech that his ultimate objective was to question Rouhani’s image and credentials as the moderate, flexible leader he is painting himself as.

The prime minister drew on citations from Rouhani’s past writings and excerpts from his previous speeches that contradicted the Iranian leader’s current position. On Rouhani’s declared commitment to "constructive engagement," he noted Iran’s active support for the Assad regime. And in response to the Iranian president’s assurance that Iran does not engage in deceit and secrecy, Netanyahu gave examples where that has arguably not been the case.

"Last Friday, Rouhani assured us that, in pursuit of its nuclear program, Iran—this is a quote—Iran has never chosen deceit and secrecy," he said. "Well, in 2002, Iran was caught red-handed secretly building an underground centrifuge facility in Natanz. And then in 2009, Iran was again caught red-handed secretly building a huge underground nuclear facility for uranium enrichment in a mountain near Qom."

Unfortunately for Netanyahu, Ahmadinejad was an easily demonized counterpart and Rouhani isn’t. The new Iranian president has written op-eds for the Washington Post, speaks of cooperation, and seemingly grasps the need for Iran to change its public image and strategy. As a consequence—and unlike his predecessor—Rouhani can tap into Western audiences and diminish efforts to portray him as a war-mongering, unpredictable and "evil" leader.

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Political pundits have been battling it out over what Tehran’s U-turn means; whether the change is a superficial makeover aimed at granting relief for a weapons development program, or if it signals a real shift toward transparency and reconciliation, remains to be seen. Whatever Rouhani's motivations, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have seized the opportunity and cautiously welcomed the new developments, while reaffirming that military options remain on the cards.

The phone call between Rouhani and Obama at the end of last month is the first official presidential conversation between the two countries since the Islamic revolution overthrew the US-backed leader Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. International relations took an even stranger turn when Rouhani and Obama exchanged polite messages via Twitter in what is a sure sign that both the Iranian and American administrations are willing to test the status quo through diplomatic channels. Clearly, if Obama can apply soft power with minimum political sacrifices to gain Iranian concessions, then he will.

According to numerous political commentators, it may well be the fact that America has had to cooperate with Iran over the situation in Syria that has strengthened diplomacy between the two countries. Others have argued that the crippling effect of sanctions on Iran—similar to the real threat of war on Syria—is forcing Iran into pursuing diplomatic efforts as a self-preservation strategy. In line with this, Netanyahu used his UN speech to jump in on Rouhani's efforts and call for strengthened and prolonged sanctions on Iran.

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Whether any agreements over existing sanctions will transpire from this sudden thawing of relations between the US and Iran is far from certain, but what can be assumed is that dynamics between the two countries—and, by default, Israel—are at least changing cosmetically.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Navy Admiral, Michael G Mullen, in 2010. Photo via

Obama is aware that the Israeli public and political and military circles remain divided on Netanyahu's aggressive Iranian foreign policy. This could embolden Obama in his attempts to apply pressure on the Israeli leader to enter talks with Iran. Despite these factors, the stranglehold of lobbies and hawks in Congress is fierce, stunting diplomacy and bolstering Netanyahu’s advocacy of harsher sanctions and militarism.

The current sanctions imposed on Iran—the most severe sanctions the country have ever faced—have had a devastating impact on the Iranian economy and population. The costs of housing and living have exploded with unemployment skyrocketing and inflation at almost 40 percent. As a result, the Iranian leadership is under intense pressure to get sanctions lifted and Rouhani has made it a prime objective to tackle them, meaning his diplomatic efforts with the US have already been welcomed by some at home.

Speaking at the UN, Netanyahu was adamant that the sanctions should not be lifted until there is a transparent and full dismantling of all nuclear facilities: "My friends, the international community has Iran on the ropes," he said. "If you want to knock out Iran’s nuclear weapons program peacefully, don’t let up the pressure." The Israeli prime minister seems unwilling to compromise and is using all of his political muscle to prevent an easing of sanctions until every Iranian nuclear program is demolished.

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Despite protests upon his return to Iran by hardliners, conservative voices have mostly refrained from criticism because the president is assumed to have the support of Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. This will grant Rouhani some breathing space as he attempts to lead a new change in American-Iranian relations, even if the positions, ultimately, remain the same—with Israel remaining a staunch ally of the US and a bitter enemy of Iran.

How the Israeli and US relationship is expressed in Iranian foreign policy is more flexible. While talk of a unilateral Israeli air strike on Iran (with US consent) dominated political commentary this time last year, recent diplomatic efforts mean that, for now, the idea of that happening seems a distant one. We might still be a long way off a public reconciliation between Iran and Israel, but as Rouhani steers the changing relations between Iran and the international community, Netanyahu will have to reassess his public image as he realizes that he and his proposals are at risk of being sidelined.

More about Iran:

Iran's Persecuted Kurds Didn't Vote for Their New President

I Spoke to a Rejected Iranian Presidential Candidate

Should Iranians Be Celebrating Their New President So Soon?