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Iran's President Is Still All Talk, But He's Saying the Right Things

Atta Kenare/Getty

The call, now heard around the world, made Friday by President Barack Obama from the Oval Office to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, as he was stuck in New York City traffic on his way to the airport, has at least for the moment ended a tumultuous 34-year-old estrangement between the two countries, a estrangement only occasionally broken by discreet mid-level meetings between the two countries’ representatives, or “back-channel” encounters. 

To anyone closely watching the contours of U.S.-Iran relations, the call was not so much a beginning but the middle of an intricately planned diplomatic dance that began several months ago. Faced with crippling sanctions, the Iranian regime announced its willingness to direct dialogue with the U.S. Indeed, many hours before the call, one of Rouhani’s top economic advisors had already met with a bevy of American captains of industry and finance, inviting them to invest in Iran. Rouhani and his capable foreign minister, Javad Zarif, had also privately met with several high-ranking American political, and media leaders. They had, in short, come not to bury the “Great Satan” but to woo him. Had there been no presidential call,  the much anticipated trip to the United Nations headquarters might have been called much ado about nothing.

Rouhani’s trip was paradoxically predisposed to be both a great success and a disappointing failure. Its virtual success was ensured by the reality of the low bar set by the eight years of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s circus-like bombastic visits to the U.N. All Rouhani had to do not to fail was to avoid the buffoonery of his predecessor. At the same time, Rouhani’s repeated promises of expeditiously fixing the nuclear impasse, resetting and managing Iran’s troubled relations with the U.S., the fact of the strong surge of support he enjoyed from most of Iran’s moderate, reformist, and democratic forces, the multi-faceted media blitz organized by his advance team of advisors, had combined to create challengingly high expectations for his trip. His suggestion that because he is no historian he can’t positively say the Holocaust was a fact of history dampened some of the enthusiastic expectations. His vaguely conciliatory speech at the U.N. General Assembly, and his refusal to attend a luncheon hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, lest he had to shake hands with Obama further dampened expectations. Rouhani, a consummate politician and well-aware of the power of images—evident, for example in his decision to bring with him the one Jewish member of the Iranian Majlis—this time chose to avoid the handshake, lest the photo-op with an American president afford more ammunition than needed to his critics at home. His final decision to take the call from the White House was clearly the diplomatic coup of his trip. Even with his vague statements, his presence had clearly dominated the new General Assembly. Save for the call with Obama, his other high-level meetings with heads of states, including with France’s president, were overshadowed by the guessing game of whether or not the U.S. and Iranian presidents will meet or talk.

In spite of the ultimate success of his trip (more than anything manifest in the call), Rouhani was not treated to a hero’s welcome at home. At the Tehran airport, about a hundred radical students blocked his motorcade by chanting death to America, performing their prayer, and hurling eggs and the infamous shoe at him. Another group had come to support the president and hailed him as the healer. After the motorcade left the airport, the two groups fought a pitched battle. Conservative papers also immediately begun to snipe at Rouhani by pointing to the discrepancy between the White House and Rouhani’s version of how the call took place. In his rendition—one clearly intended to appease the conservatives and show that he had made no concessions—it was the White House that insisted on the call even after the rebuke it received in Rouhani’s refusal to shake Obama’s hands. The White House, on the other hand, suggested that it was the Rouhani team that offered a call instead a hand-shake. Hossein Shariatmadari, the Khamenei-appointed editor of the Tehran daily Keyhan, claimed in an interview that the discrepancy between the two narratives must be resolved, adding that either Rouhani or the White House is lying, and in either case, the controversy, he insisted, underscores “the ugly and evil” nature of Rouhani’s decision to talk to the president of the U.S.

It remains to be seen whether the attacks are the last gasps of a retreating conservative camp—crippled by their own corruption, incompetence, intransigence, and the surprising potency of Western sanctions, and finally rebuked in the last presidential election, when all of their candidates combined did not garner as many votes as Rouhani—or whether they are staged side-shows to increase the diplomatic bazaar value of the conversation with Obama—Rouhani hinting to the world, “look what I have to put up with”—or whether the call was a sign of the forceful ascendancy of the moderate clerics American administrations have been seeking ever since Ronald Reagan sent Ollie North to Tehran looking for such moderates. While Rouhani repeatedly claimed that he has unfettered authority to solve the diplomatic impasse with the U.S., attacks on him upon his return home indicate that Khamenei wants to keep his options open. The outlines of a deal on the nuclear issue have more than once been floated by Iranian regime’s past or present officials: continue enrichment at three to five percent, stop enrichment at twenty percent, allow international control of Iran’s stockpile of twenty percent enriched uranium, and finally accommodate more intrusive inspections of all nuclear sites in return for lifting of sanctions. At the same time, for Khamenei, a sine qua non is his ability to sell the deal to the Iranians as a “victory.” The call was the first direct attempt by Rouhani to make the deal. It is as much folly not to celebrate it as something of a milestone, as it is premature to declare it a historic watershed. Only real, not imagined or promised, actions and changes determine watershed events. 

Abbas Milani is a contributing editor at The New Republic, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Shah.