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S. Azmat Hassan Headshot

President Obama and President Rouhani at the UN

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It is quite understandable that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, ever since his election victory last June, has engendered considerable media comment and discussion among official circles globally. In contrast to his predecessor, he comes across as much more personable and reasonable. While former President Ahmadinejad's bellicose utterances created resentment and hostility, Rouhani appears much more moderate and pragmatic. Rouhani's exposure to the west (he obtained his PhD in constitutional law from a Scottish university) makes him more rounded than the homegrown Ahmadinejad. He has made a series of statements asking for direct talks with the United States on the nuclear impasse between them.

It is worth recalling that a decade ago, Rouhani was the lead negotiator for Iran on the nuclear issue with the P5+1 Western countries. During these negotiations, he had shown flexibility by suspending uranium enrichment in Iran. When the talks did not yield much fruit, Rouhani was set upon by the hard liners in his country who blamed him for giving ground without extracting a quid pro quo. This criticism must have had resonance with Supreme Leader Khamenei, who removed him from his position. Therefore Rouhani's familiarity with an issue, which has defied resolution between the West and Iran for a decade and more, should prove useful in the future dialogue which is likely to take place.

Another important change that Rouhani has made is to appoint Javad Zarif as his foreign minister and chief negotiator on nuclear matters. Zarif, who was educated in the United States and served as Permanent Representative of Iran at the UN for an extended period in the early years of this century, is well known to his American counterparts. Zarif had cooperated with his American interlocutors on al-Qaeda and Taliban related issues post-9/11. Western diplomats who had interacted with him at the UN developed a favorable impression about his professional skills. He reportedly came across as both moderate and flexible, qualities that were not so readily apparent in his predecessor in charge of the nuclear file.

Rouhani has repeatedly stressed that Iran has no intention of making nuclear weapons, a sentiment also echoed by Ayatollah Khamenei. These officials have pointed to an Iranian fatwa (a religious edict), that bans Islamic countries from manufacturing nuclear weapons. The Iranians a few months back, in an effort to buttress its authenticity, had offered to have the fatwa enshrined as a UN document. Apparently, these gestures have not cut much ice with the United States or other Western countries, which continue to be suspicious about Iranian intentions. The feeling is mutual as the Iranian leadership is apprehensive that the Obama administration through the onerous sanctions placed on Iran through the UN system and bilaterally, is plotting for regime change in Tehran. The mutual suspicion and hostility was highlighted by Khamenei when he stated that if the United States did not trust the repeated Iranian protestations that it was not going to develop nuclear weapons, why should the Iranians accept American statements to the effect that the U.S. wanted to have better relations with Tehran?

The UN General Assembly beginning this week provides an opening in U.S.-Iran relations, which has not been available for many years. Rouhani is quite different in intellect and ideology compared to Ahmadinejad. Both he and Jawad Zarif are likely to inject a strong dose of pragmatism and flexibility in future negotiations with the United States on the nuclear and other issues. Such diplomatic openings come but rarely. It is incumbent on both countries to seize the opportunity and engage in a serious dialogue.

Rouhani's attempts to deal directly with Obama probably show a seriousness of purpose, as the P5+1 format did not prove fructuous. Obama has indicated that he is amenable to testing the Iranians to ascertain whether the Rouhani-Zarif approach is merely a charm offensive or a harbinger of a new mindset. On his part, Rouhani has stated that he has come to New York with fresh proposals, which are different from the approach in the past that was considered inflexible and unhelpful by the United States. He has also stated that he has been given full powers by the Supreme Leader to engage in meaningful dialogue with the United States.

U.S. allies in the Middle East such as Israel and Saudi Arabia would be watching how Obama and Rouhani interact with each other at the UN. Israeli statements have already started warning the United States not to fall into the trap of Iranian blandishments. This is understandable, as normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations would change the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East, which would be interpreted in Tel Aviv as not in Israel's national interest. Saudi Arabia too would be watching the proceedings in New York. If both Obama and Rouhani are able to bridge the divide between their countries, it would be an event no less momentous than President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977, which led to peace between Egypt and Israel -- hitherto two inveterate foes.
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S.Azmat Hassan, an adjunct professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, is a former career diplomat for Pakistan. Among his diplomatic assignments, he was also Ambassador for Pakistan to Syria, Malaysia, and Morocco.