Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared to take a large step forward in mending strained relations with the U.S. and Israel in a speech at the United Nations last week. In the speech, Rouhani acknowledged the Holocaust — a huge departure from former President Ahmadinejad. However, some are questioning how genuine the remarks were. Despite Rouhani’s “charm offensive” and actions that signaled his willingness to negotiate with the West, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed cynicism toward the gestures. He stated “because facts are stubborn things and the facts are that Iran’s savage record flatly contradicts Rouhani’s soothing rhetoric.” Netanyahu said “[Rouhani] thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it too,” referring to his belief that these actions by Rouhani are merely to relieve crippling economic sanctions while other aspects of Iranian policy, like producing nuclear weapons and attacking Israel, will remain unchanged.
Israel, the U.S. and Iran have spent the better part of the last 30 years hurling insults at each other and made no real diplomatic progress, despite their economic and political entanglement. Could Rouhani’s actions at the UN be the face of a new Iran that is willing to negotiate and compromise? Or is Rouhani just a more politically savvy mouthpiece for the same combative regime? Ahmadinejad is never far from the Western world’s mind when considering Iran’s statements. Ahmadinejad’s remarks at a previous General Assembly consisted of criticizing Israel and insinuating that the September 11th attacks were actually carried out by Americans. Due to Ahmadinejad’s bombastic speeches, Iran was seen as unstable, uncivil and impossible to negotiate with.
Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric seems irrational, but Barbara Rieffer-Flanagan’s article about Iran’s two, sometimes conflicting, levels of policy argues that this was strategic. The article says that Iranian leaders use religious and revolutionary rhetoric to appeal to domestic audiences and political realism when it comes to international issues. The Iran-Contra Affair is one of the best examples of these two levels of policy in conflict. Rieffer-Flanagan writes, “That Iran’s leaders agreed to not only purchase arms from the Great Satan, but were willing to deal with the Israelis, demonstrates that with the survival of the regime at stake, they would trade Islam and religious principles for the realism of international relations.” Despite their vocal anti-U.S. and anti-Israel sentiments, Iran agreed to a deal with the two nations because it was the pragmatic thing to do, showing that Iranian leaders are not devoid of rationality. In Iran, the president has little real power, and he is subject to the will of clerics, religious conservatives and the Supreme Leader. The president is careful to get approval from the Supreme Leader regarding statements. Therefore it can inferred that the Supreme Leader and clerics dictate both the domestic and international political decisions and the president serves as the public face of Iran.
In Rouhani’s UN speech, translated by CNN, that the President directly referred to the Holocaust and condemned the mass murder of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. However, immediately after this statement he seemed to soften his rhetoric on the issue. Additionally, a semiofficial news agency in Iran claimed CNN incorrectly translated the president’s remarks and he did not actually say “holocaust,” Rouhani made no comment about this claim, perhaps playing for a more domestically acceptable angle. Despite his backtracking he was pelted with eggs upon his return home following his remarks at the General Assembly and his phone call with President Obama. This small-scale domestic dissent is mostly conservative citizen outrage, it is being reported that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has given Rouhani approval to start to mend relations with the West.
It’s clear that Rouhani is publicly toeing the line between remaining faithful to Iran’s religious and revolutionary domestic base while pragmatically dealing with the West. The question remains, are Rouhani and Ahmadinejad merely two sides of the same coin? Or has Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the most powerful figure in Iran, decided to shift its expand its realpolitik into both domestic and international issues? It is too soon to tell but Rouhani’s comments signal a shift, though it’s unclear whether it’s genuine policy or shrewd political maneuvering.
Rieffer-Flanagan, Barbara Ann. “Islamic Realpolitik: two-level Iranian foreign policy.” International Journal on World Peace 26.4 (2009): 7+. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.