UNITED NATIONS —
Descending on New York this week in a Shiite cleric’s traditional fine wool robes, Iran’s president, Hasan Rouhani, turned himself into a high-speed salesman offering a flurry of speeches, tweets, televised interviews and carefully managed private meetings.
On Tuesday, he capped his speech to the U.N. General Assembly with a nod to the Torah and the Psalms, which elicited applause and then, the slightest hint of a smile. That day he also hosted a clutch of media executives as his chief of staff did what previously would have been unthinkable: meet with a dozen influential U.S. business leaders.
Over salmon kebabs in his hotel Wednesday evening, Rouhani told a gathering of former U.S. diplomats and Iran scholars that he would never give up his country’s right to enrich uranium but would swiftly resolve its nuclear standoff with the West. On Thursday, he took aim at Israel’s nuclear arsenal in a public speech in the morning and at night wooed his country’s influential, often skeptical, Diaspora with a banquet for 800.
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Amid the fervent diplomatic theater intended to end Iran’s isolation, it was at times difficult to tell whether Rouhani was a genuinely transformative Iranian leader, as his Cabinet insisted, or a more polished avatar of the past, as his critics claimed.
In television interviews and public addresses throughout the week, he repeatedly sought to cast himself as a moderate ready to do business with the West. But it was also clear that whatever he said in New York was closely, instantly dissected at home, raising uncertainty over whether he could deliver a compromise with the West, if that is what he sought.
So he condemned the Nazis in a TV interview but quickly hedged by saying he was not a historian. And even as he called for “time-bound” talks to resolve the nuclear standoff, he skipped a lunch at which he might have had the chance to meet President Obama and shake his hand. Even charmed diplomats pointed out that he offered no concrete proposals, while also noting that he had received nothing concrete from Western officials to take back to his constituents at home.
Sticks to message
Those who watched him closest this week describe Rouhani as serious, controlled and single-mindedly focused on message. He seemed intent to convey that he was prepared to take steps to normalize relations with the West, that he was reasonable and that he enjoyed the backing of the street and his country’s religious establishment. He also seemed to be in somewhat of a rush, even while saying that events might have been moving too fast.
“He did not come to New York to negotiate with speeches or throw in the towel and surrender. He came to New York to start negotiations,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “He is very clever, very pragmatic, but he’s also now showing himself to be bold, a risk-taker. He is taking the biggest risk any Iranian has in reaching out to the West.”
The contrast with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could not be more stark. Ahmadinejad used his podium at the General Assembly to blast Israel, deny the Holocaust and dangle the notion that Sept. 11 was the handiwork of Americans. Rouhani, in his public speeches, has mentioned Israel once, calling on it to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The mention came Thursday, as he called for worldwide disarmament of nuclear weapons as “our highest priority.”
“No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons,” he told the first-ever meeting of a U.N. forum on nuclear disarmament. He was speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization of mostly developing countries.
That is when he repeated the organization’s long-standing demand that Israel join the international treaty banning the spread of nuclear weapons.
Israel, which has repeatedly accused Iran of aspiring to build a nuclear bomb, is the only Mideast state that has not signed the landmark 1979 Non-Proliferation Treaty.
At the same time, Rouhani has insisted on Iran’s right to build what he insists is a civilian nuclear program. At a dinner for about 20 former diplomats and Iran scholars Tuesday, one dinner guest recalled that Rouhani was asked: What is Iran doing, and why is it doing it?
“His answer was very simple,” said the dinner guest, who could not be named because it was a confidential meeting. “We are enriching. We are doing it because it is our right.”
The only time the usually unflappable Rouhani was mildly exercised, the first dinner guest said, was when he spoke of Israel’s complaints about Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani, he recalled, pointed out that Israel itself had nuclear weapons.
The next morning, speaking at a meeting on disarmament, Rouhani called on Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.
Such remarks prompted some critics to say Rouhani was simply a camouflaged version of Ahmadinejad, pressing the same aims. “Rouhani came here today to cheat the world, and unfortunately many people were willing to be cheated,” Israel’s minister of intelligence and internal affairs, Yuval Steinitz, said Tuesday at the United Nations.
Gary Samore, a former Obama adviser and now the president of United Against Nuclear Iran, said the substance was “very similar to Ahmadinejad’s, but he says it in a much kinder and gentler way. That’s the definition of a charm offensive.”
Not a traditional cleric
To some, Rouhani may seem like a paradox. He wears the garb of a cleric, though with high-end dress shoes. He prefers to be called Dr. Rouhani, for his doctorate in law, rather than by his clerical title. His office has used Twitter to congratulate Iran’s women’s volleyball team and blast excerpts from his address at the General Assembly.
“He’s far from being a traditional Shia cleric,” said M. Hossein Hafezian, who worked with him for nearly 10 years at his Center for Strategic Research in Tehran.
He described Rouhani as a political “insider” and a moderate, but one who has shunned being called “westernized or liberal, because that would be a curse.”
One diplomat described him as so composed while meeting one of his Western counterparts that he seemed hard to grasp. The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said he was struck by the fact that Rouhani “didn’t have advisers whispering in his ears the whole time.”
Rouhani’s interest in lowering tensions with the West is most directly helped by his closest aides. He has surrounded himself with men, who, like other Iranian bureaucrats, favor trim beards and suits without ties, but who speak the language of the U.S. elite. Several, like his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, were educated in the United States.
Perhaps the most unexpected — and closely guarded — encounter this week was attended by Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian. He organized a breakfast meeting Tuesday with about a dozen New York business titans, most of them retired, from the banking and energy sectors. His message, according to the breakfast organizer, was that Iran is now pro-business and welcomes private investment, if and when sanctions are lifted.
“This was the beginning of exploring if something like that could happen,” the organizer said, asking to remain anonymous.
William Luers, a retired U.S. ambassador who runs an advocacy group called The Iran Project, says Rouhani’s greatest challenge would be to convince skeptics in Iran and the United States. “He has to demonstrate this is more than a charm offensive, that he means what he says, that if there’s a response he’s ready to be engaged,” Luers said.
The same applies to Obama, he added. “It’s too far along,” Luers said. “We’ve said too much on both sides. There’s too much distrust to just say we had a good conversation.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.