09/28/2013 10:40 am ET

Hassan Rouhani Greeted With Protests, Eggs As Iran Wrestles With U.S. Outreach


It wasn't exactly a hero's welcome.

When Hassan Rouhani, the moderate president of Iran who raised American hopes for a new era of diplomacy and nuclear de-escalation during a weeklong visit to New York, arrived back home in Tehran, he was greeted not with praise but with a crowd of protesters hurling eggs.

"Total chaos," reported the New York Times' Thomas Erdbrink, who was at the scene. He described the protest group as a minority -- a relatively small but determined core of several dozen "hard-liners."

Still, the reaction is a potential sign of challenges to come. Rouhani has made unprecedented overtures to the West during the past week: a meeting with the French president, acknowledgment of the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust, and, finally, a phone call with President Barack Obama as he was taken to the airport Friday night.

In the United States, Obama faces deep skepticism from hawkish groups and Israeli allies who worry his outreach to the Iranian regime represents a premature -- and naive -- concession to a government they worry is pursuing nuclear weapons.

But the criticism is nothing compared to the backlash that Rouhani may endure at home, analysts say, particularly if he presses ahead with promised negotiations over the country's nuclear program.

Early in Rouhani's visit, hard-liners in Iran made it clear that they oppose any sort of direct meeting between Obama and Rouhani, or even renewed negotiations. In local press interviews, chronicled by the news website Al Monitor, they referred to the U.S. as "bloodthirsty" and the "prime agent" in warfare in the Middle East. They also insisted that Rouhani's apparent overtures in the U.S. were merely shrewd political tactics.

The official Iranian news channel, while carrying reports of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif 's meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, waited until the early morning hours Saturday to mention Rouhani's call with Obama.

A Fars News report later downplayed the event, reporting that the call was made "at the request of the White House" -- contradicting the White House, which called the request for contact from Iran a "surprise."

Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, which has strongly supported efforts for reconciliation and negotiations between the Iranians and the Americans, told HuffPost on Saturday that the backlash upon Rouhani's return, while a challenge, is actually a sign of the diplomatic track gaining momentum.

"In a city of more than 10 million, about 60 protesters hurled shoes at Rouhani while far more chanted slogans praising him," Parsi said. "This was a sign of the desperation of the hard-liners, not their strength."