What Rouhani's Week in New York Means for Nuclear Diplomacy
Last week's New York visit by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani fell short of any expectations that might have been set by his historic American debut only a year ago. While there was plenty of pageantry — prime-time interviews, gala dinners, and sober speeches before august institutions — Tehran's annual American charm offensive fell short of the hype and historic breakthroughs that marked his September 2013 trip. Even more disappointing was the fact that the rare appearance of senior Iranian officials on American soil failed where it mattered most, in catalyzing new momentum on the stalled nuclear talks.
These dashed hopes should not overshadow what Rouhani's New York trip did accomplish: it clarified for Americans and the world that Iran's strategy is to play out the clock on the approaching deadline for securing a comprehensive deal and to wield its role in the intensifying regional turmoil as leverage in securing more favorable terms. This strategy, while perfectly rational from an Iranian perspective, is almost certain to produce a disastrous outcome for Iran, the region, and the world.
What a Difference a Year Makes
This September was always going to suffer by comparison to 2013, when Rouhani arrived in New York for United Nations General Assembly meetings fresh off his surprising election and brandishing a strong early mandate for diplomatic outreach on the nuclear issues. That visit was a tour de force of affirmation and celebration, with an expertly crafted crescendo of ingratiating overtures that culminated in an unprecedented telephone conversation between President Obama and Rouhani during his final moments in New York.
This time, consistent with the dire regional context and his public character throughout his long career in Iran's security bureaucracy, Rouhani bared a more censorious style and less silky rhetoric. Instead, he scolded the West for "strategic blunders" that had caused the region's many woes, and suggested that Iran's assistance against regional extremists could be had for the small price of flexibility on the nuclear issue.
In turn, he was received by his American interlocutors with a slightly harder edge. A record is tougher to defend than the mere promise of action, and journalists' questions often become more pointed when one of their own has been targeted. Instead of the patronizingly giddy praise for the Iranians' social media savvy, this year the CEO of Twitter took a highly public shot at Rouhani, encouraging him to make the technologies available to all of his citizens. (The latter move prompted a fitting counter response by Iranians, who launched a social media campaign to press Twitter to grant Iran-based users access to account verification services.)
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