UNITED NATIONS - The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has mounted a "charm" offensive to convince Americans he is not as belligerent or heavy-handed as his predecessor.
His main goal is to get sanctions lifted. So his foreign minister is engaging in talks with the United States and Europeans on Iran's nuclear program. But the Iranian leader's speech to the United Nations was a bit heavy-handed -- except for the outreach for diplomatic talks with the West.
This is mainly because the United Nations speech gets broadcast to Iran in its entirety. The more conciliatory network interviews he has given are not sent in full, just selected passages, Iranian sources said.
Rouhani obviously has to please domestic hardliners. But it is worth noting that President Obama was attacked to the point of hysteria by Republicans and some Democrats for even thinking of talking to Iran. One would have thought they had arranged a bedroom tryst.
Listened Carefully to Obama
On the fifth page of a six-page text, the Iranian leader said he "listened carefully to the statement made by President Obama today."
Commensurate with the political will of the leadership in the United States and hoping that they will refrain from following the short-sighted interest of warmongering pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences.
Unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani did not trash the Holocaust, but even ended his speech by referring to the Torah. Nor did he push any buttons by lecturing New Yorkers on the 9/11 attacks. And there were no walk-outs during his speech but the Israeli delegation boycotted the talk.
Rouhani denounced the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council and strengthened by Western countries for its failure to halt uranium enrichment, which can be used to make a bomb or be ready to do so at short notice. Many Western nations and Tehran natives believe this is the case but Iranian leaders, including Rouhani, insist nuclear arms have no place in Iran's future.
The sanctions, he said, were "violent, pure and simple."
He did not mention Israel by name but addressed violence against Palestinians. There may be a reason for this. In UN speeches, Iran has rarely uttered the word "Israel" but called it a "Zionist entity." Such a label would have ruined any charm offensive.
Rouhani's sophisticated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, a former UN ambassador who holds a doctorate from the University of Denver, will be on hand for another week.
Basis for "meaningful agreement."
In welcoming a diplomatic opening to Iran, Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry would begin negotiations on the nuclear program. He also called on the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution that would impose measures on Syria if it did not relinquish its chemical weapons (that appears quite unlikely now). And he called again for results from Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that Kerry helped restart.
But the much awaited handshake between Obama and Rouhani did not happen, with the Iranians saying it was too "complicated" to arrange, given the reaction in Tehran, U.S. officials reported.
However, Obama said the Iranian president's overtures could "offer the basis for a meaningful agreement" on the nuclear program.
In his speech, Obama said his administration could not abide Iran developing any nuclear arms. But he did not repeat previous assertions that "all options are on the table," a code for military action.
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," he said.
Outlining what appears to be an evolving foreign policy for the turbulent Middle East, Obama said there was a risk if the United States turned isolationist:
The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is (that the United States) may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.
Contrary to pundits at home, several diplomats questioned were impressed with the speech. Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, Masood Khan, no lover of U.S. drones, told this reporter the address was nuanced, thoughtful and "not a black and white presentation."
French President Francois Hollande did meet Rouhani, the only Western leader to do so this week. France has been particularly tough in setting out technical details of Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Israel Weighs In
Rouhani's more nuanced approach has put Israel in a difficult position. Yuval Steinitz, minister for strategic and intelligence affairs, held a UN press conference not long after Rouhani spoke.
He said the Iranian president changed Tehran's rhetoric and not its substance, adding that he tried to "cheat the world and unfortunately many people are willing to be cheated."
"We heard a lot of new rhetoric but zero new steps or even zero new commitments to meet the UN Security Council resolutions," he said.
"The greater the economic and military pressure on Iran, the greater the chances of diplomacy to succeed," Steinitz added. "If this will be crystal clear to the Iranians that they have only one choice -- between saving their economy and giving up the nuclear project, or saving the nuclear project and destroying their economy and maybe also suffering from a military attack."
And back in Washington...
It is hard to imagine the U.S. Congress, which can't even pass a budget, ever lifting sanctions against Iran.
Or (excuse my aside) the U.S. Senate ratifying a treaty against small arms, which Kerry signed at the United Nations today, despite the National Rifle Association stepping up in full armor. (The pact really doesn't go much further than current U.S. export controls.)
But the Senate rarely ratifies any treaty, even the one on the 1990 Rights of the Child to protect children from abuse. OMG