Can Iran’s New President Be Trusted?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Over the weekend the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, released a widely distributed and read op-ed fleshing out the details of what he calls ‘constructive interaction’ with the world. The upcoming UN General Assembly meeting taking place in New York this week seems like the perfect venue to test this new attitude, especially with Iran’s Arab neighbors, Israel and the United States. Most observers in the region remain skeptical either of Rouhani’s real intentions or of his ability to deliver.

In last week’s op-ed, Mr. Rouhani certainly had the air of someone who grasped the significance of this moment for his country: “Three months ago, my platform of ‘prudence and hope’ gained a broad, popular mandate. Iranians embraced my approach to domestic and international affairs because they saw it as long overdue. I’m committed to fulfilling my promises to my people, including my pledge to engage in constructive interaction with the world….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.”

Given Mr. Obama’s preference for solving outstanding differences and conflicts through diplomacy rather than the use of force, Mr. Rouhani’s ‘constructive interaction’ with the rest of the world, should come as music to the president’s ears. Most believe, however, that it might be too soon to determine whether Mr. Rouhani’s words are more than just a delaying tactic for an Iranian regime allegedly dead-set on acquiring nuclear weapons. Reflecting on how Obama will respond to the Iranian president’s offer, the Peninsula’s Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick believe: “It looks more likely to be a handshake and brief exchange of pleasantries — probably in the UN building — rather than a formal meeting where the leaders could talk at greater length…. With conciliatory overtures and gestures emanating from Iran’s ruling echelon at a surprising pace in recent days, the White House is looking for the right balance in forming a response…. Obama eventually wants to encourage Iran to make concessions in talks over its nuclear programme. But if he embraces Tehran too warmly before it takes concrete actions, he would risk criticism that he is fumbling another foreign policy issue after struggling to handle crises over Syria and Egypt.”

The Saudi Gazette editorial displays a similar lack of confidence in the words of the Iranian leadership, including Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who in recent days appears to soften his stance toward the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): “What is happening in Iran?  Most outstandingly, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has said that his negotiators should be more flexible in their discussions with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and now the new president has gone on U.S. TV to say that his country will never acquire nuclear weapons…. the Obama administration needs to look very carefully at this new face that Tehran is presenting before it considers softening its tough approach to the regime….Therefore, if real talks on the nuclear issue do begin, there can be no relaxation of sanctions and no moderation of the uncompromising international position until IAEA inspectors have been permitted to enter the disputed nuclear sites and have reported on what they have found there.”

At the heart of the question is whether the Iranian regime can be trusted or not. Judging by his recent column on Asharq Alawsat, Abdulrahman al-Rashed does not think so; not because Rouhani might not be sincere, rather because: “Without hearing the Iranian military and revolutionary leaderships along with the president and the supreme leader restate the Rouhani’s announcements, we will keep on doubting that the new president is just reiterating the strategy of former President Mohammad Khatami; a strategy that consists of love, tolerance and dialogue declarations while Revolutionary Guard leaders perform criminal activities outside Iranian border, and engineers carry on with the nuclear reactor and the secret uranium enrichment.”

Arab Times’ Ahmed Al-Jarallah is also skeptical of the statements coming out of Tehran in the absence of any clear support by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards: “The recent statements made by Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and the Republic’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, are welcome in the Arabian Gulf….For this, we, in the Arabian Gulf, hope the Iranian leadership will realize — no matter how late — that the current shrewd diplomatic relations entailing mutual understanding and interests is the real strength, especially among neighboring states….We wish to reiterate that we welcome statements made by Khameini and Rouhani. We also hope none of the Revolutionary Guard leaders comes out to follow another ideology, in line with the Iranian policy which we were used to in the past, as if we were dealing with an unorganized nation with the ability to do something that cannot be done.”

There are those, like Jihad al-Khazen, who suggest that part of the change in tone must be evident  in the way Iran deals with its Arab neighbors: “Iran wishes to start a clean slate with the external world, mainly the USA. I wish that the moderate politics announced by President Hassan Rouhani and supported by the Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could have included the Gulf States in order to reassure them to that the old Persian dreams are gone….Iran is insisting on the persistence of its nuclear program through a limited enrichment for the purposes of power production….Therefore, I am not sure if the new Iranian foreign politics will work. I however say that the closer parties must have precedence and Iran must work on enhancing its relations with its Arab neighbors before extending its hand to Israel’s allies.”

Considering that there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of both Iran’s president as well as the country’s spiritual leader, Al Hayat’s Abdullah Iskandar argues that it is highly unlikely the recent change in tone is a coincidence and that it does not have the backing of important religious and military figures in Iran: “Iranian President Hassan Rohani has succeeded, in the few months since his election, to break through the many layers of hard ice that had covered and constrained his country’s diplomacy towards the West and the United States – a task which his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, had failed to carry out during his eight years in office (from 1997 to 2005)….Rohani’s reformist discourse, characterized by openness towards the West, can therefore not be credited with breaking the ice of Iranian diplomacy….The decision to engage in such openness is one that was taken at the level of the religious-military establishment, during the final meager years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, taking shape in the election of Rohani from the first round, despite competing against strongmen of the ruling institution, precisely in order for this decision to be translated diplomatically.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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