Iran’s President Rouhani has written a year-end editorial which has appeared in several leading international newspapers and websites.
The publication was not without controversy. Fars News, linked to the Revolutionary Guards, quoted a senior Rouhani advisor’s denial of the article. Project Syndicate, which handled distribution of the editorial, tweeted EA that it was genuine, and Rouhani’s Twitter account posted statements in line with the theme of the article. No explanation for the advisor’s statement — whether it was true or created by Fars — was ever given.
So, now that the flutter over the editorial’s authenticity has subsided, what can we make of the message?
1. AN ENGAGEMENT OF “MODERATION AND COMMON SENSE”
When I campaigned to become President of Iran, I promised to balance realism and the pursuit of the Islamic Republic’s ideals — and won Iranian voters’ support by a large margin. By virtue of the popular mandate that I received, I am committed to moderation and common sense, which is now guiding all of my government’s policies….
In terms of foreign policy, my government is discarding extreme approaches.
Not much to decode here. Rouhani campaigned for President on the theme of “prudence”, contrasting himself with the aggressive — and thus counter-productive — Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And he has not wavered in putting forth that middle-of-the-road, pragmatic line.
The outcome? “That commitment led directly to the interim international agreement reached in November in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear programme. It will continue to guide our decision-making in 2014.”
2. WHY? THE ECONOMY
Yet the nuclear deal, and even relations with the US and other countries, is only the means to an immediate end. Rouhani’s urgent priority is at home:
We seek effective and constructive diplomatic relations and a focus on mutual confidence-building with our neighbours and other regional and international actors, thereby enabling us to orient our foreign policy toward economic development at home. To this end, we will work to eliminate tensions in our foreign relations and strengthen our ties with traditional and new partners alike. This obviously requires domestic consensus.
3. SO I WANT TALKS WITH THE US
The days of “no talks with the US” are gone. In September, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sat down at the same table with Secretary of State John Kerry, and Rouhani had his historic phone call with President Obama. Bilateral discussions with the Americans followed on the side of the negotiations with the 5+1 Powers that led to the interim nuclear deal.
We are also considering how to rebuild and improve our bilateral and multilateral relations with European and North American countries on the basis of mutual respect. This requires easing tensions and implementing a comprehensive approach that includes economic ties.
We can begin by avoiding any new strain in relations between Iran and the US and, at the same time, endeavouring to eliminate inherited tensions that continue to mar relations between our countries. While we may not be able to forget the mistrust and suspicion that have haunted Iranians’ thinking about US governments for the last 60 years, now we must focus on the present and look to the future.
4. PRESIDENT OBAMA, TAKE CHARGE
But this is not just a question of talking to the US. It is a call for both sides to ensure that dialogue turns into constructive agreements.
That, for Rouhani, means President Obama must get control of a US Congress that may threaten sanctions which will undermine the detente — “rising above petty politics and leading, rather than following, pressure groups in our respective countries”.
And it’s not just Congress that has to be kept in check — Obama also needs to exercise leadership over Israel and Saudi Arabia:
Cooperating on issues of mutual interest and concern would contribute to easing tensions in our region as well. This means countering those in the US and our region who seek to distract international attention from issues in which they are directly involved and prevent Iran from enhancing its regional status.
5. ISOLATING ISRAEL
Speaking of the Israelis — while not mentioning them by name — Rouhani suggests they can be put on the sidelines so genuine negotiations can take place:
We all know who the chief agitator is, and what purposes are to be served by hyping this [nuclear] issue. We know also that this claim fluctuates in proportion to the amount of international pressure to stop settlement construction and end the occupation of Palestinian lands. These false alarms continue, despite US national intelligence estimates according to which Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon.
6. BUT WHAT ABOUT SYRIA?
Rouhani’s trickiest international issue may not be the nuclear questions, but the Syrian crisis. He has to maneuver between those in Tehran who want an all-out campaign against the opposition, insurgency, and its Saudi supporters and those abroad who are wary of an aggressive Iran alongside the Assad regime.
Having avoided isolation over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, Rouhani would like to ensure involvement at the top table on regional matters.
So “moderation and common sense” means a general denunciation of the violence and extremism, warning that this could escalate if there is no helpful intervention for a political settlement, without too much blame of the Syrian opposition and even Saudi Arabia:
Our region is grappling more than ever with sectarianism, group enmities, and potential new breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism. At the same time, the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria could haunt the region’s peoples for many years. We believe that, under such circumstances, a voice of moderation in the region could affect the course of events in a constructive and positive way….
Iran, as a major regional power, is fully prepared to move in this direction, sparing no effort to facilitate solutions. So those who portray Iran as a threat and thus seek to undermine its regional and global credibility should cease — in the interest of peace and tranquillity in the region and beyond….
We are pleased that in 2013 diplomacy prevailed over threats of military intervention in Syria. We must build on this headway and understand that Syria is in dire need of coordinated regional and international efforts. We are ready to contribute to peace and stability in Syria in the course of serious negotiations among regional and extra-regional parties.
7. TRUST US? ABSOLUTELY
As we showed in 2013, Iran is fully prepared to engage seriously with the international community and to negotiate with our interlocutors in good faith. We hope that our counterparts, too, are ready to take advantage of this window of opportunity.