Iranian President Hasan Rohani, who is on a five-day visit to New York this week, capped by his address at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, was in a position to allay a lot of suspicions about his country’s nuclear program and support for terrorism.
Sadly, he fell short.
Much has been written about Rohani’s so-called “charm offensive.” He has gone out of his way to show he is a different leader than his in-your-face predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, dropping hints that he would like warmer relations with the West and an easing of the crippling economic sanctions on his country.
The Obama administration is clearly interested in rapprochement. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. And Obama used his General Assembly address to open the door to dialogue with Iran.
“America prefers to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully,” Obama said, “although we are determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”
Unfortunately, Rohani’s address, though somewhat softer in tone than the tirades Ahmadinejad used to deliver (he didn’t mention Israel nor engage in Holocaust denial, and he did acknowledge Obama’s outreach to his country), but he didn’t put anything new on the table.
Rohani may be — to borrow a line from George H.W. Bush — a kinder, gentler Iranian leader. So far though, that kindness and gentleness exists only in image, not substance. We still don’t know if this charm offensive is designed to improve relations or to buy more time for development of nuclear weapons.
He told reporters before he left Tehran that he planned “to show the true face of Iranians to the world.”
Well, this week was a good time to prove it. Ostensibly, at least, he didn’t.
Here’s what Rohani should have announced if he truly wants to hit the reset button with the West:
• An end to enrichment of uranium and the shipping of existing stockpiles out of the country. That need not mean the end of a peaceful nuclear energy program in Iran as Western countries have already offered to provide the fuel necessary for the Islamic republic to operate power plants. It would, however, allay concerns of a nuclear weapons program.
• Unfettered access for international inspectors to research and production sites around Iran, something Rohani has been unwilling to do thus far.
• Clear and very public statements disavowing the Holocaust-denial of
Ahmadinejad, as well as his predecessor’s reference to wiping Israel off the map.
It’s not like Rohani doesn’t have leverage to make deals with the West. Even though the real power in Iran lies with its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it appears Khamenei has given Rohani a green light. In a speech he gave last week, the cleric spoke of the need for “heroic flexibility” in negotiations.
Some leaders are totally unimpressed by the charm offensive. Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned the West not to be fooled by it.
We, too, are skeptical, especially in light of what did not happen this week. The West shouldn’t be seduced by Rohani’s rhetoric.
But we should not dismiss Iran’s gestures out of hand either; no possible diplomatic opportunity should go unexplored, and we admit we don’t know what all happened in the New York away from the cameras.
The United States and its allies should be frank but approachable with Iran, which is distancing itself from Ahmadinejad, if only rhetorically. We shouldn’t be prepared to unilaterally end sanctions, but we should be willing to listen.