Hassan Rouhani, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly last week, warned against extremism and miscalculation, stressed the importance of prudence and ‘moderation’, reaffirmed that Iran’s nuclear programme had purely peaceful purposes, dismissed the notion that his country posed a threat to the Middle East, argued that politics was not a zero-sum game and that negotiations could settle differences, and denounced all uses of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical ones. He concluded with citations from the Psalms, the Torah and the Persian epic poet Ferdowsi.
Barack Obama’s speech was just as conciliatory. He navigated nimbly, if not hazardously, paying homage, on one hand, to American ‘exceptionalism’ and its universal ‘responsibilities’, especially in the Middle East, and, on the other hand, talking of the need to avoid ‘perpetual wars’ and hasty interventions, and to withdraw gradually from unnecessary entanglements in the Middle East. He expressed sympathy for the ‘many thousands’ of Iranians gassed by Saddam Hussein, admitted the US had overthrown Mossadegh’s government ‘during the Cold War’, denied any intention of ‘regime change’, congratulated the people for electing a moderate president, reassured everyone he wanted to resolve the nuclear issue ‘peacefully’ and, most pertinent, respected the ‘right of the Iranian people to have access to peaceful nuclear energy’.
As Rouhani was preparing to return home, he had a brief but friendly phone conversation with Obama. This came soon after the White House leaked that Obama had offered to shake hands with Rouhani at the UN but been rebuffed. Rouhani was probably taken aback by Obama's willingness to break the basic rules of diplomacy by shaking hands at the start instead of the end of negotiations.
So there is the possibility of a breakthrough. America’s accepting Iran’s right to nuclear technology would also meet the implicit Iranian goal of having the theoretical capability – the long-term future potential – to put together a deterrent. Iran learned the hard way not to rely on the international community when its neighbours unleashed weapons of mass destruction. And it doesn’t know who in the distant future will be ruling Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. A Shia Baathist like Ayad Allawi in charge in Baghdad could be more dangerous to Iran than even Saddam Hussein.
The opening in US-Iran relations sparked off a peace panic. Even before Rouhani had arrived at the UN, Binyamin Netanyahu warned that he was a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, as dangerous as his Holocaust-denying predecessor, and that the Iranian olive branch was really a ‘honey trap’. Israel’s UN ambassador admitted she missed Ahmadinejad and said Iran was trying to gain time to build nuclear bombs. Seventy-six senators and two hundred congressmen signed a letter to Obama calling on the White Hour to toughen the already tough sanctions on Iran. John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani joined a Mujahedin e Khalq protest against Rouhani’s visit. Foreign Affairs, which often reflects the views of the State Department, ran a long piece on Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, arguing that he made all the major decisions and implying Rouhani was a secondary figure. The New Yorker ran a longer piece on a certain General Suleimani, who is apparently the ‘single most powerful operative in the Middle East’, determined to create a Shia arc from the Mediterranean to Pakistan. He is also said to be responsible for killing ‘hundreds of Americans’ in Iraq.
Meanwhile, a New York district court seized a $500-million skyscraper, allegedly belonging to a Iranian government front organisation, to compensate victims of terrorism. The building had escaped all previous seizures, including the grand confiscation of Iranian property immediately after the 1979 hostage crisis. The Anti-Defamation League dismissed as inadequate Rouhani’s description of the Holocaust as a ‘horrendous crime’ because he shied away from exact numbers on the grounds he was not a historian. And two senior senators – John McCain, who once sang ‘bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran’, and Charles Schumer, who led the congressional charge into Iraq – wrote an open letter to Obama demanding tougher sanctions unless Iran halts its ‘nuclear activities’. This is very close to the position of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), which insists that Iran cannot be trusted with any nuclear programme, should cease all uranium enrichment and close down all nuclear facilities. (Israel is almost certainly behind the assassination of a number of nuclear scientists in Iran.)
The peace panic is probably not warranted. Tucked away in Obama’s olive branch was a potential major stumbling block. In the same breath that he acknowledged Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, he demanded that the government meet its responsibilities under UN Security Council resolutions. These go way beyond the Non-Proliferation Treaty. They demand that Iran cease all enrichment and answer all questions related to its pre-2003 nuclear activities. But Iran has made the right of enrichment its central principle. And there is little doubt that when the Bush administration was crying from the rooftops that Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of nuclear bombs, Iran took the precaution of starting research on nuclear weaponry. But as the CIA and 16 other US intelligence serves have concurred, such research appears to have ceased in 2003, when Saddam Hussein was eliminated. It would be a pity if the US administration got bogged down in history, a subject it doesn’t usually show much interest in. As a State Department spokesman admitted immediately after Obama’s UN address, ‘the devil is in the details.’