Iran’s President Rouhani and the New Hopes for Diplomacy (Sternfeld)

Something about hope

Since coming to office in August, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has done everything to spell out the profound difference between his administration and the previous one. No, Iran is still not a liberal democracy, but what we are witnessing today is an amazing journey of a struggling country with barriers, obstacles, and contending ideologies and practices towards a better future and some kind of coexistence with the surrounding world.

Rouhani’s campaign revolved around the same ideas he is professing now as a president. Dialogue with the west, compromise on the nuclear issues, recovering the economy, and eventually doing anything possible to lift the sanctions. Critics maintained that he is merely a puppet of the hardliners. In fact, he had to compromise with his own hardliners: his cabinet is not the one he dreamt of, but the winds of change are coming to Tehran. In a couple of interviews to American network Rouhani reiterated the official stand of the IRI that under no circumstances should Iran pursue development of nuclear weapons. Cynics may dismiss it altogether, but Iran opposes weapons of mass destruction regardless of pretext. Harsh criticism was voiced (and later been denied to some extent) against Assad’s Syria use of chemical weapon, reminding the Iranian tragedy as a victim of Saddam Hussein WMD attacks during the long war.

Then, for the first time in years, an Iranian-Jewish rapprochement has begun with celebratory tweets from the presidential office in Tehran to the Jewish people worldwide wishing them Shana Tov (happy new year). Mohammad Javad-Zarif, the Foreign Affairs Minister, seconded it with his own tweets, and then a conversation thread with Christine Pelosi (the daughter of Nancy Pelosi- the Democratic minorit leader of the house) regarding Iran’s holocaust denial, to which Javad Zarif eloquently answered: “Iran never denied it. The man who did is now gone. Happy new year.”

Not to spare a moment, shortly after The Times of Israel reported that Rouhani may meet Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, a prominent Israeli spiritual leader, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Pinto is known to have good relations with high officials in the Israeli administration. The meeting has yet to be confirmed, but that is it even being broached is worthy of mention.

In the past week, amidst reports of power struggles between the new Iranian administration and the Revolutionary Guards, some change was also felt inside Iran. It is not quite clear if it was just a glitch or intended experiment, but Twitter and Facebook ban was briefly lifted in Iran for the first time since 2009. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency it happened a couple of times, but was reported to be a glitch and reinstalled shortly after. This time, it may appear as a taken path rather than a bug or mistake. What makes me believe that it is more of a new direction, were the events of releasing long-time political prisoners, such as Nasrin Sotoudeh.

A few months ago, shortly after the elections, I interviewed a prominent member of the Iranian Jewish community who told me: “Nobody realizes what a friend of the Jewish community has just been elected.” He referred to his tenure as President Khatami’s advisor, when he initiated and helped to organize the president’s visit to the Yousef-Abad synagogue in Tehran. And now, the most recent news from the Iranian capital is that one of the parliament members that will accompany the president in his trip to New York is the Jewish representative, Siamak Moreh-Sedek.

The negotiations regarding the nuclear issues are about to restart soon, with a clear message from the Iranian administration that an agreement is within reach. The government is determined to improve Iran’s situation both domestic and internationally. If by now you still do not think that something has changed in Iran following the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, you must stop watching Fox News or living in inside Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s mind.

Lior Sternfeld is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at the University of Texas, Austin.

28 Responses

  1. Iran, like Syria agreeing to do away with chemical weapons, has disappointed the Likuds and Raytheon…they were so hoping for all out war.

  2. More than four million Iranians who left Iran – including about a million who came to the United States – due to the Islamic revolution, and especially millions of Iranians who had to stay home and put up with all the excesses of the Iranian government, the hostage crisis, and all that Iran went through as the result of foreign intervention, from the devastating eight-year war that killed and wounded a million Iranians, the summary executions of hundreds of former officials, the bloody infighting between the clerics and their erstwhile allies the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization [MKO], the Tudeh Party and other militant leftist groups, the execution of thousands of MKO prisoners on the orders of Khomeyni after the Mojahedin joined Saddam Hussein forces to attack Iran during the last phase of the war, etc. have no illusion about the nature of the Iranian clerical regime. Many Iranians believe that the Islamic revolution was unnecessary and that it gave rise to a reactionary regime that set Iran’s progress back by decades.

    However, they also know that time moves on and that there is no point crying over spilt milk. Under President Mohammad Khatami there was great hope among many Iranians that his election would result in the gradual reform of the system from within without the need for too much bloodshed and would restore ties with the West. President Khatami’s unexpected election, with his slogans of dialog of civilization, a genuine move for greater freedoms at home, the flowering of the press and the arts, and an unprecedented era of reformist religious thinking, provided a great opportunity for better relations with the West. However, the prospects of better relations with Iran alarmed many neocons who wrongly believe that isolating Iran is good for Israel. From the first day of his election, Khatami was subjected to vilification by the Israelis and their friends in America, which culminated in David Frum’s inclusion of Iran in the Axis of Evil as read out by former President Bush in his State of the Union address in 2002. That put an end to any prospect of rapprochement between Iran and the United States and resulted in the election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

    The unexpected election of President Hassan Rouhani has provided another opportunity for a serious dialog between Iran and the United States. Already many Israelis and their neocon friends are in a state of panic and are doing everything in their power to make sure that this opportunity is also stillborn like the previous one.
    link to

    Many Iranians know that a resumption of relations with the United States will not resolve all the problems that Iran faces and will not create a true democracy overnight. However, they know that a government that has friendly relations with the West and is susceptible to Western views will moderate its policies both at home and abroad. They also know that any regime that is cornered and threatened will become more militant and ordinary people will suffer. The West should not miss this opportunity to take Iran seriously, to establish friendly relations with Iran and push it towards more moderate policies at home and abroad. Responding positively to Iran is not an act of favor, but something that is to the interest of the West and Middle Eastern peace and security as a whole. The Obama Administration should have the courage to seize the moment and push hard to bring Iran out from the cold. Such a move would be good for the United States, for Iran, as well as for the Middle East, including Israel.

    • That’s a great post, Farhang.

      Currently, the sanctions are intended to hurt the common people of Iran, and they are doing so. Lifting them is critical.

      If sanctions aren’t lifted, we can assume that US and Israeli military action is still part of the over-all plan, and the Iranians will assume the same.

      The time for serious rapprochement is now.

  3. Estimates of the number of Jews in Iran range up to 30,000.

    By Iranian law, the parliament is guaranteed one Jewish representative.

    Iran has the largest Jewish population of any Middle Eastern nation outside Israel.

  4. Obviously, Israel is a big factor in any negotiations between the US and Iran, but times may be changing. Enough Americans seem to have spoken regarding Syria and let their elected officials know they are tired of war and tired of Israel and their neocon friends promoting these wars. Enough politicians seem to have gotten the message or felt they had enough cover to stand up to the Israel lobby so it looked like Obama wasn’t getting his vote to wage another war. Perhaps this momentum will continue to promote a dialog between Obama and Rouhani at the UN. Given Obama’s credits for NSA spying and death by drones, he needs some diplomatic success to offset these negatives on his legacy.

    • I could be wrong, but I think the Lobby may be able to pull this one off. It failed on Syria and it has failed to get a war with Iran, as Joe pointed out in another post and I couldn’t reply to since replies were closed *glares*, because Americans actually care about wars. Particularly after Iraq, they very much don’t like them. Lobbies in general can’t really beat the public on areas the public cares about and is paying attention to.

      I’m not sure this is such an area. I personally doubt there would be much popular backlash if Congress were to pass a sanctions bill against Iran when Obama is trying to negotiate. As a result, it is much more likely to win here. We saw the President vs. the Lobby back when Obama was pushing a settlement freeze after all, and the Lobby won. Issues the Lobby can and can’t win on aren’t divided into Israel issues and Iran issues, they are divided into issues where there is significant public opposition and areas where the public is either supportive or indifferent.

      Maybe I underestimate the American public. It would be a pleasant surprise, believe me. But I don’t think it is the most likely outcome here.

      • “We saw the President vs. the Lobby back when Obama was pushing a settlement freeze after all, and the Lobby won.”

        The Israeli Lobby had nothing to do with Obama’s buckling on his attempt to get a settlement freeze. Obama and the administration were dealing directly with the Israelis in November-December 2010, trying to get a total freeze on settlements for 90 days. Netanyahu would not budge on the issue and refused to agree to the freeze. It was Netanyahu and the Israeli government itself, not the Lobby, who stiffed Obama on the freeze.

    • The notion that the destruction of al Qaeda through the drone campaign is something Obama would need to “offset” could only come from the most isolated of bubbles.

      • Given that the drone program is generally unpopular globally but popular in the US, I would say support for it is the more ‘isolated’ position.

    • “Perhaps this momentum will continue to promote a dialog between Obama and Rouhani at the UN.”

      I wouldn’t bet on this, but apparently the Israelis aren’t taking any chances and are now in full press mode in the media. From Mondoweiss:

      “In case you have not heard the word from Israel: Time has “run out”, there’s no time left for further negotiations with Iran (link to, Iran will have a bomb in 6 months, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”” Quite simply, Israel is freaking out.”

      • Israel — more accurately, the Israeli right wing — ALWAYS freaks about any possibility the might lose their monopoly on US support in the MidEast. If we were to start supporting Iran again, particularly an Iran led by someone who has world respect AND is popular among Muslims (not sure Rouhani has the former yet, but he’s got a better chance than Ahmadinejad), we stand to gain millions of new allies and would benefit FAR more than supporting an isolated state widely distrusted by its neighbors. (I know some of the MidEast distrusts Iran, particularly the Saudis because of their Wahhabi worldview, but they ALL distrust Israel, even if they deal with them. The problem isn’t the people there, it’s the Israeli government’s practices, and by distancing ourselves from them, we might be able to start repairing some of the relationship damage with Muslims nations the wars caused.)

  5. One can only hope….it might only be a ploy,..but maybe cooler heads will prevail…sure as heck ,beats any war…we shall see

  6. Rouhani’s campaign revolved around the same ideas he is professing now as a president.

    A campaign that ended with his Rouhani’s electoral victory this past June.

    But, or course, the American media’s take is that Rouhani’s recent statements and apparent desire for dialogue are the result of the Syria chemical weapons crisis and/or the diplomatic resolution that resulted.

  7. “…he needs some diplomatic success to offset these negatives on his legacy.”

    On the other hand, after talking with Henry Kissinger Obama may have concluded legacies are not a point of concern.

  8. It is very easy to label any other country with anything like labeling Iran as “Axis of evil”, & that is when US presidency was awarded by the Supreme Court of the US to one like Bush, who has difficulty to say even two sentences with a straight face without stumbling & looking for words.

    US have to weed out its own “Axis of Evil” like David Frum. There are too many “Axis of Evils” in the US. Unless they are not thrown out, it is very for American Policy to change anywhere in the world not just with Iran.

    Like when President Arafat was alive, it was said that we need some moderate in his place to move forward. Now, there is a moderate Abu Mazan, has anything changed. Are Palestinians better off? No.

    No matter how much President Ruhani is a moderate, things will not change, until America takes care its own “Axis of evils”.

  9. I seem to recall a certain well-respected expert on Middle Eastern politics and culture explain that the sanctions regime and standoff with the United States would strengthen the Iranian hardliners, rally the Iranian public towards confrontational politics, and isolate the reformers.

    It seemed like a reasonable prediction at the time. What happened?

    • It’s a good bet that the hardliners were given a boost. Fortunately, more reasonable forces prevailed. If only something similar could happen in the United States.

      • It doesn’t seem like a terribly good bet that hardliners were given a boost, given that they did worse than usual. “Fortunately” isn’t an explanation.

        • Because one side lost doesn’t mean it didn’t get a boost from one action. It happens all the time. An increase in support in one area doesn’t always doesn’t mean success when all the chips are in. This comment will probably boost some reader’s agreement, but it will never be enough to prevail with some people.

    • It’s hard to keep track of Anonymous Joe’s Anonymous Predictions and Pontifications, like the absolute necessity to Protect the World Order by blasting the heck out of something or other RIGHT NOW in Syria to Stop The Use of Chemical Weapons, because the evidence of the actual weapons used was destroyed totally by “massive bombardment.”

      And the steady drumbeat of usually one-sentence claims applause and assertions that “See? Obama Was Right Again, see how he has achieved his Foreign Policy Goal for this or that thing?”

      Maybe somebody else can recall some of them? Or maybe he has always been “right,” or at least able to offer some facile two-sentence explanation for why complex behaviors have turned out, for the apparent moment, or as characterized and constrained by him for the sake of argument or attacking someone else’s credibility, a particular way…

      • JT,

        You spent the last month defending a chemical war criminal and accusing his victims of complicity in their own deaths.

        Why you think it’s a good idea to bring that subject up is beyond me. Frankly, in your shoes, my response would be more like “My God, what I have become?” rather than taking every opportunity to advertise your sickness to the world.

        Seriously, take some time for some introspection.

        • Joe, you know, that is just about enough. Defending Assad? That is a flat out bald-faced scurrilous lie. I won’t even give you the courtesy Joseph Welch accorded Bomber Joe McCarthy. You have no decency, sir, and no shame, and that goes nicely with your indecent disingenuous anonymous persistence.

          But then as such a busy player, you know the subtleties of the blogspace game really well, now don’t you? How to get away with crap like the above (and the below) snideries?

          One might ask how it advantages you, in your quest for blanket credibility and so very subtle and sometimes abusive efforts to skew and direct the flow and content of discourse here, and at the other places you post, to lay out patent lies like the one above.

          Seems to me I don’t hate you at all, just see you as a symptom and manifestation of a particularly pernicious disease.

      • JT,

        The question of how American foreign policy actions influence other powers’ internal politics is a meaningful one, and deserves a more serious response than your continued embittered railing about That Guy You Hate On The Internet.

  10. Your article was excellent and the signs are encouraging. However, it might be foolish for Rouhani to meet with Rabbi Yeshayahu Pinto. He is under indictment in Israel for large scale money laundering, theft from charities and attempted bribery . He is a prominent figure with a large following, especially among wealthy personalities seeking his magical blessings. His associates in NYC have also been charged with political corruption involving illegal campaign contributions.

    I would hope Rouhani has good enough judgment to steer clear of this huckster.

    See: link to
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