TEHRAN — Tehran’s long evening rush hour is winding to a close. Mohammed, my taxi driver, makes his way briskly down Beheshti Street, named after the assassinated revolutionary cleric, in a rusty Peykan car that smells faintly of gasoline.
The plaintive tones of the evening’s news report buzz from his car radio. “President Hassan Rouhani will address the UN General Assembly at 11:30 p.m. Tehran time tonight,” announces the female presenter before a long news jingle, based on Jennifer Rush’s ’80s single ‘The Power of Love,’ plays out.
I was on the way to catch the speech at a friend’s house and I told Mohammed of the stories I had heard that a Rouhani and Obama meeting might take place before the Iranian president’s speech.
“Really?” he asked incredulously. “Then what have we been fighting for?”
The historical handshake that never was would have been the first executive-level bilateral meeting between the Islamic Republic and the United States. Many conservatives in Iran eye the détente with the West with trepidation, for it calls into question the key tenet of resistance to “Westoxification,” which was an important driver of the 1979 revolution and, in some circles, remains a big source of legitimacy for Iran’s clerical government.
But the election of Rouhani, the softening of the US position on Iran’s nuclear program and, to a lesser extent, the sanctions placed on Iran’s economy have made pragmatists of many conservative ideologues.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself has suggested that negotiations with the West for sanctions relief in exchange for more nuclear transparency should be predicated on “heroic flexibility:” “A wrestler sometimes shows flexibility for technical reasons,” he told officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), leading some observers to believe he was calling for a tactical retreat.
“It is not a retreat — under [former President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad we made a similar offer to what Rouhani will make now. The Americans have retreated more — they didn’t accept enrichment before, and now they do,” said my friend, Reza, in the early hours of the morning as we sat and waited for the president’s UN speech. “The leader said this so if Rouhani can make a deal to get sanctions lifted, he can claim responsibility.”
The truth is that Iran, like the US, has softened its position. Unlike his predecessor, Rouhani has spoken of “full clarity” on Iran's nuclear program, in addition to present safeguards placed on Iran under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Just after 1 a.m., state TV cut to Rouhani standing at the podium of United Nations General Assembly. The speech started with accusations against “those who pursue and impose” sanctions, referring to the US and Israel.
“These sanctions are violent, pure and simple,” he said. “It is not the states and the political elite that are targeted, but rather, it is the common people who are victimized by these sanctions.”
Reza’s friend Farzard, who made a living manufacturing and selling guitars until the currency crisis largely sparked by the sanctions sent his costs soaring, is happy to see Rouhani top-loading his speech with statements on the immorality of the sanctions.
“This is economic war,” said Farzard. “Imagine if Iran were extorting countries to sanction American exports. The sky would be filled with bombs.”
The president also made reference to the assassination on Iranian soil of five nuclear scientists who, according to mutually corroborating reports by NBC and The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, were killed by Israeli intelligence using MEK agents trained in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Here, I should also say a word about the criminal assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. For what crimes have they been assassinated?” Rouhani asked, referring to a verse in the Quran favored by Iranian revolutionaries. “The United Nations and the Security Council should answer the question: Have the perpetrators been condemned?”
But Rouhani saved the last third of his speech to reach out to the West, laying the ground for upcoming nuclear talks that he and Obama have delegated to their respective foreign ministers.
“Iran seeks to resolve problems, not to create them. There is no issue or dossier that cannot be resolved through reliance on hope and prudent moderation, mutual respect and rejection of violence and extremism,” he said. “I propose, as a starting step, the consideration by the United Nations of the project: the World Against Violence and Extremism. Let us all join this 'WAVE.'”
An expert in Tehran says Rouhani’s use of an English-language acronym could follow his campaign slogan of “Government of Hope and Prudence” to become a maxim of his administration’s foreign policy. His condemnation of chemical-weapons use in Syria, his censuring of the IRGC for seeking to influence politics and his regular invocation of the perils of extremism support this.
Tehran University political science professor Ziba Kalam faulted Rouhani’s speech for being too accusatory, slowing the momentum he had gained recently on rapprochement with the West.
“I think the weak point of Mr. Rouhani’s speech is that he should have passed the past much faster,” he said. “When you are about to start a new chapter, referring to the past, I think, will not solve any issue.”
“Mr. Rouhani didn’t say and do as much as he wanted, but he said and did as much as he could.”
Arron Merat is a journalist specializing on Iran.