United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

New Team to Head Nuclear Talks

            President Hassan Rouhani has appointed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to lead nuclear talks with two other senior diplomats, according to Iranian news agencies. As Iran’s U.N. ambassador between 2002 and 2007, Zarif gained a reputation among his European and U.S. counterparts for being less ideological and more pragmatic than other Iranian diplomats. The other two envoys are Abbas Araghchi, deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, and Majid Takht Ravanchi, deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs.
            In early September, Zarif said that members of previous negotiating teams would also be asked to join the new team. He said the team’s goals would be “safeguarding the achievements of Iranian nuclear scientists, protecting the people’s rights in the nuclear field, and removing the international community’s concerns,” according to Fars News Agency.
            Four other members will join the team, including a representative from Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and one from the Supreme National Security Council. In the past, the national security adviser led talks with the world’s six major powers — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. Zarif’s predecessor was Saeed Jalili, an ally of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was widely seen as dogmatic and undiplomatic by his interlocutors.
            The following are profiles of the three diplomats named to lead the new negotiating team.

Minister of Foreign Affairs: Mohammad Javad Zarif
      Born in 1960, Zarif was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007. He is widely regarded as one of Iran’s most savvy diplomats. Zarif served as deputy U.N. ambassador from 1989 to 1992 and then as deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs until 2002.
      Zarif has been involved in both formal and informal talks with the United States. In 2001, he was Iran’s emissary to U.N. talks on the future of Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster. U.S. envoy James Dobbins credited Zarif with preventing the collapse of the conference due to last-minute demands by the Northern Alliance to control the new government. As an ambassador, Zarif attempted to improve relations with the West, including the United States.
            Zarif speaks English with an American accent after receiving two degrees from San Francisco State University and a doctorate in international relations from the University of Denver.
 
Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and Int'l Affairs: Abbas Araghchi
      Born in 1962, Araghchi is the deputy minister for legal and international affairs. In 1990, Araghchi entered the foreign ministry and was quickly promoted to charge d’affairs of Tehran’s Organization of the Islamic Conference mission in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In the mid-1990s, Araqchi did graduate work on politics and government at the U.K. University of Kent at Canterbury.
            Araqchi then returned to Iran and held senior positions at the Institute for Political and International Studies, a foreign ministry think tank. Between 1999 and 2013, Araqchi held several senior and ambassador-level positions in the foreign ministry. He served as ambassador to Estonia, Finland and Japan. In May 2013, Araqchi was appointed foreign ministry spokesman. He reportedly speaks English.
           
Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs: 
Majid Takht Ravanchi
      Born in 1958, Ravanchi is deputy minister for European and American affairs. He earned two civil engineering degrees from the University of Kansas in the early 1980s, according to his official curriculum vitae. He then returned to Iran and entered the foreign ministry in 1986. Ravanchi reportedly earned a master’s degree from Fordham University while serving as counselor at Iran’s U.N. mission in New York.
      In 1992, Ravanchi was appointed deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, a position he held until 1998. He served as a special assistant to the foreign minister before his 2002 appointment as ambassador to Switzerland and Lichtenstein. In 2009, he took a break from diplomatic work and served as deputy director of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Political Islam. He returned to the foreign ministry in 2013. Ravanchi reportedly speaks English, French and German.
 
Photo credits: Javad Zarif via Facebook, Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs mfa.ir

President Rouhani on War and Peace

      In several key speeches and interviews, new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has outlined his views on war and peace. “Any government that decides on war, we consider that a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect,” Rouhani said in his first interview for American television. The president also urged world leaders to break down walls of mistrust and suspicion to foster better relations. The tone was noticeably distinct from the inflammatory rhetoric former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
     
In explaining Tehran’s opposition to war, Rouhani frequently cited Iran’s devastating experience during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Iraqi forces bombed Iran’s largest cities and used chemical weapons on thousands of Iranian soldiers. The war claimed up to 1 million casualties. The following are excerpted remarks by Rouhani.  

 
War

            “We are very worried about war in our region. We have the experience of a number of destructive wars in this region. The day we feel a new war is about to happen in our region, we consider its destructive consequences.  In the past few weeks, my government made many efforts to ensure that the region does not witness a new war. In this context, the cooperation between Russia and Iran has been notable.

            “We consider war a weakness. Any government that decides on war, we consider that a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect for the sake of peace. I do not want to make a judgment about individuals or the American government. I want to express my happiness about a new war not starting.  This is important to me and for my people and for the nations in the region.”
            “The people and the government of Iran abhor threats as much they hate war. The passion of the Iranians is friendship all around the world. We do not see any reason for anyone to threaten us.”
            Sept. 18, 2013 in an interview with NBC
 
            “We are against all wars and are ourselves a victim of war and invasion.
            “We call on all the warmongers not to seek a new war in the region [over Syria], because its consequences will bring them regret. War must be stopped by logic, politics and cooperation between regional countries… we must try to bring the Syrian government and opposition to the negotiating table.
            “War and diplomacy have no relation to one another, and no free and logical nation accepts diplomacy and war on the same table.”
            Sept. 22, 2013 in an address marking the Iran-Iraq War to the armed forces
 
Peace
            “Suspicions and miscalculations have created many walls between nations. Leaders must try to remove these walls. The wall which is called mistrust, the wall which is called suspicion, the wall called miscalculation should all be torn down, and an atmosphere of friendship and kindness should be established among all nations.”
            “What we wish for in this region [the Middle East] is rule by the will of the people. We believe in the ballot box. We do not seek war with any country. We seek peace and friendship among the nations of the region.”
            Sept. 18, 2013 in an interview with NBC
 
            “Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better. To do that, we all need to muster the courage to start conveying what we want — clearly, concisely and sincerely — and to back it up with the political will to take necessary action. This is the essence of my approach to constructive interaction.”
           Sept. 19, 2013 in an op-ed for The Washington Post
 
            “The Iranian nation is a lover of peace and culture, and it is after progress without any causing damage to other countries.”
            Sept. 23, 2013 in remarks to local media

Photo credit: Official website of the president's office, President.ir

Nasser Hadian on Why Iran is Ready

Nasser Hadian

      Iran’s entire socio-political landscape has changed since President Hassan Rouhani’s June election. There are a lot of hopes that things are going to get better, especially given what happened under the previous government. But this is a cautious hope or optimism, not the wild-eyed optimism of former President Mohammad Khatami’s era. Everything seemed possible in the late 1990s. Now hope is more balanced and realistic.
      Rouhani is a more pragmatic politician than Khatami, who was more of an intellectual and moral individual. Rouhani is more like former President Bill Clinton, someone who can deliver.
 

            Iran's new president is also an insider. Rouhani knows how to navigate the corridors of power in Iran. He has known the supreme leader for some 40 years. And Rouhani has been his representative for 25 years on the Supreme National Security Council. So Rouhani also knows other power centers and how to maneuver them, which Khatami was reluctant to do. No one can question Rouhani’s professionalism, credibility or national security credentials.
           Rouhani can formulate a strategy. The Scotland-educated cleric is a sophisticated politician who has the patience and knowledge required to achieve his objectives. Even conservatives, radicals and principlists cannot question his qualifications. His insider status is an asset rather than a liability.
 
Foreign Policy
      On foreign policy, Rouhani’s appointment of Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) was an important signal to the world. There were a number of alternatives. So Zarif’s appointment signaled that Rouhani cares about international affairs, wants to improve Iran’s image, and resolve the nuclear dispute. As ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007, Zarif was a key figure in diplomacy and the nuclear issue. He was also important in terms of Iran’s image abroad, particularly in the West. Zarif speaks English fluently after receiving two degrees from San Francisco State University and a doctorate in international relations from the University of Denver. He has been Iran’s best diplomat since the revolution and virtually everyone acknowledges his credentials.
 
            I’m optimistic that Iran can solve the dispute over its nuclear energy program. If an agreement is not reached, then the United States is probably creating barriers.  
            But on improving Iran-U.S. relations, I’m not very optimistic. Relations might improve but not to a great extent. In both Tehran and Washington, criticism of the other country is rewarded. A member of Iran’s parliament would pay a price for calling for better relations with the United States. And the same is true for a member of Congress. Look at previous resolutions from the House of Representatives. A total of 130 members said they wanted to give diplomacy with Iran a chance in a July 2013 letter to President Barack Obama. But once a new sanctions bill was put on the table, over 400 representatives voted for it — including more than 100 of those who signed the letter.
            Lawmakers on both sides are afraid because it’s popular and easier to criticize the other country. So this structure should be changed. But how? It’s not an easy thing to do in either capital.
 
Nuclear Program
            On the nuclear dispute, Iran and the United States want to get similar things out of a deal. Washington doesn’t want Tehran to have a bomb. And Tehran doesn’t want one either. But Iran has to give guarantees to the West that it doesn’t want a bomb. Verification systems will be a particularly important part of an agreement. An additional protocol should take care of this issue, and Iran would likely ratify that part of a deal. Tehran would also likely agree – in the end – to limit its uranium enrichment program and the size of its enriched uranium stockpile. Iran could also limit the number of centrifuges. But there are minimum requirements for Iran – such as retaining the right to enrichment and having centrifuges.
            In return, Iran wants the removal of all sanctions imposed since 2008– unilateral and multilateral. Tehran also wants the E.U. incentive proposals to be put back on the table. They included investment in the oil industry, technology transfers, airplane parts and many other things. But that would most likely be part of the end game. An agreement could be implemented stage by stage, with the whole package initially agreed upon. 
            But Iranians are very suspicious of the end game. If they come to the negotiating table, agree and implement the first and second steps of a settlement, then the United States may tell Iran that it cannot enrich uranium.
            Closing down the Fordo nuclear facility would not be an option for Iran. The government wants to retain the ability to enrich uranium. And Fordo is the one safe place for enrichment. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other nations cannot attack and destroy it. Only U.S. bunker-buster bombs could destroy the facility, which is built into the mountains.
 
The Supreme Leader
      Iran has achieved what it wanted – mastering the knowledge and technology of enrichment. Ideally, Tehran would like to have hundreds of thousands of centrifuges. But Iran achieved its minimum goals, so it is ready to make a deal. And Rouhani is fully empowered to cut one.
      The supreme leader (left), however, is not interested in restoring full diplomatic relations with the United States. He probably would not object to better relations and allowing exchanges. But Ayatollah Khamenei would not, for example, approve the opening of a new U.S. embassy.
      An agreement on the nuclear issue, however, could create momentum that would have a trickle-down effect on U.S.-Iran relations. Such momentum would have its own dynamism. But for now, the default position is hostile to full diplomatic relations with the United States. Journalists, athletes, museum directors and academics may have an easier time going to and from Iran. Exchanges, however, would not likely lead to an economic or diplomatic relationship —at least anytime soon.          
 
Obstacles to Outreach
      Some factions in Iran will almost certainly push back and make it more difficult for Rouhani (left) to improve relations with the outside world. Not many people will oppose better relations with Iran’s neighbors. But there may be some disputes about prioritizing relations with other regional powers. For example, should Iran devote more resources to strengthening ties with Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? Some will call for looking east rather than west. 
      Saudi Arabia is becoming a more pressing issue in Iran. The monarchy seems to be waging war against Tehran almost everywhere. Iranian relations with Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Iraq are basically oriented toward deterrence, defense and retaliation in case of attack. Tehran’s goal is not to project power. But Saudi Arabia is projecting power in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Bahrain. The Saudi government is waging war on oil prices too by boosting production. And Saudi Arabia is even building infrastructure in Iran’s Baluchistan, Kurdistan, and Khuzestan provinces. Tehran’s policy, so far, has been a policy of appeasement but that is beginning to change. The 2011 Saudi attack on Bahraini protestors was insulting to Iran, as was the hanging of some Iranian citizens in Saudi Arabia.
            Improving relations with the West, especially the United States, will be more controversial. Some will do their utmost to prevent it. Rouhani has a chance to improve relations with Britain, but he may encounter pushback from hardliners. So Rouhani’s government will likely take gradual steps to ease tensions.
            Engaging other European countries will not be as sensitive of an issue. I’m hopeful that Iran’s image and relationship with European countries will improve within coming months, especially if steps are taken towards resolving the nuclear dispute.
            Rouhani is likely to encounter stiff opposition to improved relations with the United States. Some bazaaris have vested interests in China. Basijis, voluntary militiamen, have built their credentials on being anti-American. Some members of parliament have done the same. Some socially conservative forces fear that reestablishing relations with the United States would lead to decay of traditional values. Some radicals and principlists are opposed to rapprochement on either political grounds or social reasons.
            The Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s most powerful military organization, may not support better relations with the United States. But some commanders or factions may not oppose moves in that direction either. After the supreme leader’s recent speech, the Guards will probably go back to their barracks to build themselves up as a military force, rather than a political force. Khamenei said they need to understand politics, but warned them to not get involved in politics.
 
Nasser Hadian is a professor of political science at the University of Tehran.
 
 

Rouhani Speaks on Washington Post

            In a Washington Post op-ed, President Hassan Rouhani urged world leaders to take advantage of his call for constructive dialogue. He pledged a sincere effort to secure “win-win solutions to disputes with other nations. Rouhani argued that international politics is no longer a “zero-sum game” and that cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. The op-ed is the latest in a flurry of public diplomacy efforts ahead of Rouhani’s United Nations debut scheduled for September 24.

      On Tehran’s controversial nuclear program, Rouhani explained that generating nuclear power is about Iran’s dignity and demand for respect, not just diversifying its energy resources. “Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved,” he warned.

      On Syria, Rouhani reiterated Iran’s opposition to use of chemical weapons without blaming the Syrian government or rebels. He also stressed that Tehran is ready to help facilitate dialogue between Damascus and the opposition.

      Rouhani’s op-ed is his second outreach effort specifically directed at the American public after his recent NBC interview. His office widely promoted both the interview and op-ed on social media. The following are excerpts from the op-ed with tweets of Rouhani’s key points.

International Dialogue
            “The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.


“In a world where global politics is no longer a zero-sum game, it is — or should be — counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others. 


A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. 

Nuclear Program
            “To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world. Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved.”

 

Syria
            “Syria, a jewel of civilization, has become the scene of heartbreaking violence, including chemical weapons attacks, which we strongly condemn.
            “First, we must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain. We must create an atmosphere where peoples of the region can decide their own fates.”

Extremism

             “The unilateral approach, which glorifies brute force and breeds violence, is clearly incapable of solving issues we all face, such as terrorism and extremism.

Identity and Conflict

             “My approach to foreign policy seeks to resolve these issues by addressing their underlying causes. We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart. We must also pay attention to the issue of identity as a key driver of tension in, and beyond, the Middle East.

“At their core, the vicious battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are over the nature of those countries’ identities and their consequent roles in our region and the world. The centrality of identity extends to the case of our peaceful nuclear energy program.  

Unilateralism

             “Sadly, unilateralism often continues to overshadow constructive approaches. Security is pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others, with disastrous consequences. More than a decade and two wars after 9/11, al-Qaeda and other militant extremists continue to wreak havoc

havoc… In Iraq, 10 years after the American-led invasion, dozens still lose their lives to violence every day. Afghanistan endures similar, endemic bloodshed.”

 

Click here for the full text.

 

Iran at the UN: Khamenei to Rouhani

Shaul Bakhash

            On September 24, Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani will make his debut at the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). He is far from the first Iranian president to make this appearance. For a quarter century, Iran’s top elected leaders have all used the green marble dais in the cavernous General Assembly to lay out Iran’s vision for the Islamic Republic, the Middle East, and the world. Indeed, before becoming the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, even then-President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei traveled to New York for the opening of the United Nations in 1987.
      Rouhani’s appearance this year may be particularly momentous. For the first time, both Iran and the United States are in sync about serious diplomacy -- and the bargaining may well begin in public but even more behind-the-scenes in New York. Rouhani has made clear that he will use the gathering of heads of state to announce a new era in Iran’s relations with the outside word, especially with the United States and Europe. In his brief six weeks in office, the president has already talked extensively about moderation and “constructive engagement” on international disputes.
 
 
            The Scottish-educated cleric has openly talked about a “win-win” deal to resolve the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program. He has vigorously defended Tehran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, while denying that the Islamic Republic is developing the world’s deadliest weapon. But he has also pledged greater transparency to address unanswered questions about Iran’s program. With Iran’s economy in shambles, he is also looking for relief from punitive international sanctions imposed because of Iran’s failure to comply with a series of U.N. resolutions.
            Rouhani will also be pressing for what amounts to a win-win compromise on Syria, Tehran’s closest ally in the Arab world. The new president has repeatedly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, without blaming the government outright. The use of chemical weapons is particularly sensitive in Iran because it suffered tens of thousands of casualties from Iraq’s repeated use of several forms of chemical weapons during their eight-year war in the 1980s. But Iran has reportedly provided significant aid to the embattled regime of President Bashar al Assad. The Islamic Republic has also supported Russia’s effort to find a diplomatic outcome that will keep Assad in power. And Tehran has been outspoken in condemning a possible U.S. military strike.
            Rouhani’s appearance should be placed in the context of long years of experience with Iranian engagement at the United Nations. The UNGA openings have been a forum for some of the most dramatic exchanges between Iran and the international community.
 
 President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
            “The foundations of the security supported by such a Security Council is nothing but a nice-looking house of cards... A big chapter of our history, a very bitter, bloody and evil chapter, is saturated with American enmities and grudging hostilities toward our nation... The system of world domination makes decisions for the whole world ... yesterday it was Hiroshima and today the president of the United States is proud of the horrendous behavior of his predecessors.”
            President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 1987
 
            Khamenei’s attendance at the 1987 General Assembly marked the first visit by a senior Iranian official to the United Nations. Khamenei addressed fellow heads of state in the midst of the devastating Iran-Iraq war. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s military had invaded Iran in 1980 to overthrow the fledgling Islamic Republic. Iran was isolated and resented the U.N. Security Council’s apathy toward the war. Khamenei had an opportunity to present Iran’s case.
 
      On the day before Khamenei’s address, U.S. forces attacked the Iran-Ajr, an Iranian vessel caught dropping mines in the Persian Gulf. Five Iranians were killed and 26 crewmen were seized, four of whom were injured. Khamenei lashed out at the United States in his speech and claimed the Iran-Ajr was a merchant vessel, not a military speedboat. The incident derailed what might have been Tehran’s moment of engagement with the outside world.
            Khamenei’s words, however, reflected more than his immediate anger about the attack of the ship. Khamenei outlined his broader worldview, which centered on criticizing the prevailing international order since World War II. Khamenei begrudged the status of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members -- the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia -- and their ability to veto resolutions. Khamenei went on to repeat his call for a change in world order as president and later as supreme leader. Rouhani’s posture will likely starkly contrast with Khamenei’s only address to the general assembly.
 
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati
            “The failure of the Security Council squarely to face the Palestinian crisis and the constant aggressions against the Palestinian people, Lebanon and Syria, not to mention its intentional failure to enforce its own resolutions, are a sad illustration of the prevailing preference of political interests over peace, security, international law and equity.”
            Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, 1993
 
      For the next decade, no Iranian president traveled to New York to deliver a U.N. address. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati spoke for Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president from 1989 to 1997. Velayati served as foreign minister from 1981 to 1997 and still holds considerable influence as chief foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei. In his addresses, Velayati repeatedly criticized the international order and accused the U.N. Security Council of maintaining double standards. In 1992, he condemned minimal international reactions to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, “decades-old aggression” by Israel against Palestinians, and Serbia’s move against the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1996, Velayati accused the U.S. Congress of allocating money for terrorist activities against the Islamic Republic.
           But President Rafsanjani was more than likely using Velayati’s addresses to exhibit strength and independence to please the Iranian public. Back in Tehran, Rafsanjani quietly enacted pragmatic policies aimed at improving Iran’s relations with the outside world. Early into presidency, Rafsanjani repaired relations with Saudi Arabia and reestablished relations with several Middle Eastern and North African monarchies. He in effect sided with the U.S.-led coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait. And he helped win freedom for American hostages held by Lebanese allies. Rafsanjani also reached out Egypt and signed a $1 billion agreement with the U.S. oil company Conoco to develop Iranian offshore fields. But former President Bill Clinton killed the deal with an executive order that barred U.S. investment in Iran’s oil sector.
 
President Mohammad Khatami
            “If humanity at the threshold of the new century and millennium devotes all efforts to institutionalize dialogue, replacing hostility and confrontation with discourse and understanding, it would leave an invaluable legacy for the benefit of the future generations.”
            President Mohammad Khatami, 1998
 
            When President Mohammad Khatami took office in 1997, he sincerely thought he could inaugurate a new era in Iran’s relations with the international community. In a January 1998 interview, he first outlined his idea to have a “dialogue among the nations” to promote international cooperation and understanding. He acknowledged the “bulky wall of mistrust” that had gone up between Iran and the United States since the 1979 revolution. “There must first be a crack in this wall of mistrust to prepare for a change and create an opportunity to study a new situation,” Khatami told CNN.
      In September 1998, Khatami spoke at the U.N. General Assembly opening and became the first Iranian president to visit the United States in a decade. The reformist president was Iran’s one hope for better relations with the international community. Khatami’s address defied Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, which argued that culture would be the primary source of conflict in the future. But Khatami’s plans did not work out the way he intended, mostly due to domestic pressure. Hardliners did their best to disrupt and sabotage Khatami’s efforts to reach out. U.S. outreach to Khatami was too cautious. And the international community did not reciprocate the way Khatami had hoped.
            Khatami, however, did achieve some success in foreign relations. He nullified Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death decree against British writer Salman Rushdie, which had severely aggravated Iran’s relations with Europe and even led to the withdrawal of ambassadors. Khatami agreed to suspend Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment program to allow negotiations with the Europeans to go forward under Rouhani, then-secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator.
 
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
            “Today, the Zionist regime is on a definite slope to collapse, and there is no way for it to get out of the cesspool created by itself and its supporters… American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road, and its next rulers must limit their interference to their own borders… With the grace of God Almighty, the existing pillars of the oppressive system are crumbling.”
            President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 2008
 
            Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president from 2005 to 2013, took a new approach to speaking in front of the U.N. General Assembly. The hardliner treated his appearances as an opportunity to play his preferred role as international bad boy, willing to challenge the West on almost any issue. Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric prompted many walkouts by Western countries each year. He predicted the collapse of American power, capitalism, and Israel. In 2010, Ahmadinejad suggested that the United States orchestrated the 9/11 attacks in order to “reverse the declining American economy” and “save the Zionist regime.” In 2011, he claimed, “European countries still use the Holocaust after six decades as the excuse to pay (a) fine or ransom to the Zionists.”
      Ahmadinejad also treated his U.N. audience to his bizarre religious views. He once predicted an early second coming of Jesus Christ side-by-side with the Shiite savior, the Mahdi.
      Ahmadinejad’s performances were aimed at a domestic audience to an extent, but more importantly to a third-world one. He tried to emulate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and cultivate influence in developing countries. But in reality, Ahmadinejad did serious damage to Iran’s credibility and international standing with his U.N. speeches.
            After eight years of Ahmadinejad’s confrontational leadership, Iran seems ready for a change in 2013. In the run-up to Rouhani’s speech, the new president has already signaled his desire to chart a new, more flexible course in dealing with the outside world. “We do not seek war with any country. We seek peace and friendship among the nations of the region,” he said in a September 18 interview with NBC. Rouhani also mentioned that he had received a “positive and constructive” letter from U.S. President Barack Obama that could be “tiny steps for a very important future.” Rouhani’s address could be the most substantive overture yet delivered by an Iranian leader to the United Nations.
 
Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.

 

Read Bakhash's chapter on the Six Presidents in "The Iran Primer." 

This piece first appeared on www.foreignpolicy.com

Photo credits: President.ir, C-Span

 

Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo