After the Iranian smiles wear off, a host of questions

After the Iranian smiles wear off, a host of questions

Rouhani’s ‘charm offensive’ may have piqued interest in the West, but back in Tehran his liberal policies will be a hard sell

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (photo credit: AP/John Minchillo/File)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (photo credit: AP/John Minchillo/File)

The smiles and festivities ended for Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani almost as soon as his flight from New York landed in Tehran. Alongside hundreds of “charm offensive” advocates, there were also dozens of young supporters of Iran’s conservative parties. These flung shoes and eggs at Rouhani to protest the seemingly liberal approach he’s taken toward the West and, worst of all, his telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama.

Although the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, expressed its confidence in Rouhani on Tuesday — some 230 of its 290 members signed a petition that praised the president — the support and approval were accompanied by considerable criticism, particularly in regard to Rouhani’s conversation with Obama. Iranian parliament Chairman Ali Larijani praised Rouhani, but conspicuously made no mention of his conversation with Obama.

Still, minor public objections and one debate or another in the parliament need not be of great concern to Rouhani. What should trouble him is the unexpected public declaration made by the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, General Mohammad Ali Jafari. Jafari is one of the most powerful people in Iran’s political, economic and security circles and is a close confidant of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It was Jafari who made it clear to the elected president of Iran that he should have refused to accept Obama’s phone call.

We can only imagine how difficult it would have been for Rouhani to refuse to take the call. On the previous day, he refused to meet with his American counterpart. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, reported that the White House made five attempts to connect the presidents before the call finally took place. Rouhani may have believed that a conversation of this kind was a positive and necessary step toward easing sanctions on Iran. But a large number of officials, including top-ranking members of the Revolutionary Guards, are carefully and suspiciously eyeing his every step. From their perspective, even the policy of smiles and amiability that has Israel so skeptical is excessive and puts Iran’s nuclear goals at risk. And only two days after returning to his homeland, Rouhani and his people have begun to speak more cautiously about negotiations regarding their nuclear program, and are particularly insistent in their firm refusal to stop enriching uranium on Iranian territory.

Despite the domestic criticism, and despite the Israeli skepticism, however, Rouhani’s approach does represent the moderate, pragmatic population that exists today in Iran, a population that would favor certain concessions on the nuclear program if that is the price to be paid to end the sanctions.

Religious leaders such as Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, one of the leading Shiite adjudicators in Isfahan, support Rouhani’s policies. In an article in an Iranian newspaper, Rahbar wrote that “the slogan ‘Death to America’ does not appear in the Koran,” hinting at the possibility of normalizing relations with the US. Several Iranian political analysts support the new trend as well. Sadegh Zibakalam, for example, wrote that “those that support hostility toward the US can no longer restrain the improvement in the relations between the two countries… It is becoming increasingly difficult for the conservative groups to convince Iranians that hostility toward the US is necessary.”

But such moderates, and the ordinary Iranians who feel likewise, haven’t yet succeeded in changing Iran’s policies. The moderates’ views are certainly gaining in popularity among the Iranian public and even some of its politicians, but the leadership, comprising spiritual leaders and Revolutionary Guards, takes a far warier approach to interaction with Western countries — and it’s even more leery when it comes to nuclear concessions. Most notably, Khamenei has thus far avoided coming out decisively in favor of Rouhani’s more open policies.

In any case, however, it is important to stress that Rouhani and his people take every opportunity to declare that they have no intention of acceding to demands to stop enriching uranium or to terminate Iran’s nuclear project. This makes it all the more difficult to understand The New York Times editorial that immediately followed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech this week at the United Nations General Assembly. “It could be disastrous if Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters in Congress were so blinded by distrust of Iran that they exaggerate the threat, block President Obama from taking advantage of new diplomatic openings and sabotage the best chance to establish a new relationship since the 1979 Iranian Revolution sent American-Iranian relations into the deep freeze,” the paper warned.

Suddenly the cause of a potential disaster for Israel and the United States becomes clear. It isn’t Iran’s clear determination to obtain a nuclear bomb, but rather Netanyahu being “blinded” and “exaggerating the threat.” Considering the relentless steps that Iran has taken over the past decade to advance its nuclear program, it is impressive indeed to manage to portray Netanyahu as the one who is blinded.

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