The flight from Tehran to New York is long, but if hopes were jet engines Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, would be here already. Rouhani, who took office just six weeks ago, is due on Sunday for a week of public appearances and diplomatic footwork, centering on his first appearance before the United Nations General Assembly. For those invested in Iran’s future, the moment is auspicious—and precarious. Rouhani has staked everything on resetting Iran’s foreign policy. That begins with restoring an aura of dignity to the office of the Iranian Presidency, and it ends, from the Iranian point of view, with a nuclear deal that preserves Iran’s core security interests as Rouhani perceives them but also ends its isolation and leaves Western powers with no further justification for crippling the country’s economy with sanctions.
One can hardly overstate the importance of the first part of this equation to many ordinary Iranians. President Rouhani may not embody the fondest hopes of the most liberal cadres of the Iranian opposition, but, for a great many of his countrymen, he does represent the resurgent dignity of an economically battered, socially divided, but enduringly proud nation. The previous President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, cut a cartoonish figure on the world stage, with Western diplomats stalking out of his speeches before the General Assembly, his September media tours the occasion for gawking and clucking. Iranians who were embarrassed by these performances may anticipate their new President’s foreign tour with relief, even pride. The Islamic Republic of Iran will be represented by a statesman—one who can expect his foreign interlocutors to listen to his message and treat him with respect.
The Obama Administration has an opportunity, next week, to strengthen Rouhani’s hand by demonstrating that it takes his diplomatic appeal seriously. The symbolism of a cordial encounter at the United Nations—or, better, a Presidential meeting—could signal that Washington recognizes the sea change in Tehran. Already, the exchange of letters between the two Presidents has raised hopes for direct communication at the highest levels. If, on the other hand, American officials communicate skepticism in their public statements, if they suggest that Rouhani is insincere or not empowered to follow through, or if they continue to emphasize the threat of force, they risk making his diplomatic initiative look foolish and thus strengthening the hand of his most radical adversaries. On Friday, Rouhani published an op-ed in the Washington Post that declared his policy of “constructive engagement.”
For now, by many accounts, the mood in Iran is one of muted jubilation. Expatriates are suddenly finding reasons to return to Iran, or, at the very least, to visit New York during the new President’s sojourn. There has been a signal of change nearly every day of the week before Rouhani’s trip. First, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, declared his openness to “heroic flexibility” in international affairs; then normally blocked Web sites, including but not limited to Facebook and Twitter, emerged from behind government filters for a few hours, in what many saw as a trial run for future censorship relaxation (but was officially called a “technical glitch”); finally, the government set free eleven political prisoners who had been held since the unrest that followed the 2009 Presidential election.
We have not seen the likes of Rouhani in Iranian politics in a long time. He is no freelancing hard-line provocateur, like Ahmadinejad, whose flamboyant self-regard ultimately cost him the establishment’s trust. Nor is he an embattled reformer, like Mohammad Khatami, the mild-mannered intellectual whose democratizing project ran aground on the implacable opposition of the deeper clerical state. Rather, Rouhani resembles his political patron, the former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a nimble, pragmatic centrist with deep institutional roots within the Islamic Republic and a relationship of long standing with the Supreme Leader. Like Rafsanjani, Rouhani may not be the most idealistic President Iran has ever had; in the nineteen-nineties, he was hostile to the project of democratic reformers, firing many of them from the think tank he ran. But he is poised to be one of its most effective. By all appearances, he has set the diminishment of hostilities with the West as his No. 1 priority. And he is better placed than any President since Rafsanjani to achieve that goal.
Rouhani is the consummate foreign-policy insider. He served as the Supreme Leader’s representative to the country’s highest foreign-policy-making body, the Supreme National Security Council, for fourteen years. He has worked for Iran’s defense establishment through nearly every branch of the government. In an interview with Ann Curry, on NBC, Rouhani made it clear that he believes he has full latitude from the Supreme Leader to enact Iran’s foreign policy. He has brought the nuclear file, long overseen by a committee under the Supreme Leader’s office, under his own foreign ministry. This stands in marked contrast to the powers of the two preceding Presidents, whose interventions in foreign affairs were often undercut or stymied from above.
But Rouhani does not have long. If the past is any guide, the Supreme Leader’s patience and good will are unlikely to extend past the first year or two of his Presidency. The Iranians also know they will not have a better interlocutor in Washington than an Obama Administration in its second term.
Unfortunately for Iran, Syria has thrown a wrench into the works. If the United States uses force in Syria, it will be politically very difficult for Rouhani to restrain his right flank and pursue dialogue. He might fail to control it anyway, in which case it will be harder for Obama to engage with his team.
Centrists are disconcerting. They deflect passions rather than satisfy them, which may be why the term “heroic flexibility” has such a peculiar dissonance. But, in a society as polarized as Iran’s, tacking to the center may be a heroic course after all. How else to draw the alienated Green Movement—branded “the sedition” for the past four years—back into the polity without inflaming the hard-line conservatives who facilitated its expulsion? Some analysts suspect that the long-deferred Iranian dream of legalizing competition among political parties may come to fruition not under a liberal President but under a pragmatic one.
But even this project remains at the mercy of Rouhani’s diplomatic mission. If he fails to deëscalate tensions with the West, Rouhani may lack the political capital to alleviate repression at home.
The hopes now carrying Rouhani to American shores are as big as they are fragile. For thirty-four years, the United States and Iran have regarded each other balefully across what has seemed an unbridgeable divide. The flexibility required of both sides to reach each other across that chasm without losing their footing might be heroic indeed. But a handshake—the first between the Presidents of Iran and the United States in more than three decades—would be a great start.
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