Obama could meet Iran’s Rouhani at UN amid signs of thawing relations

Ed Pilkington — The Guardian Sept 20, 2013

Iran’s new reform-minded president, Hassan Rouhani, may meet Barack Obama in an informal, orchestrated encounter at the UN general assembly next week, amid signs of a rapidly softening stance in Tehran.

Rouhani will address the assembly on Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after the traditional opening speech by the host president, Barack Obama – a symbolically important though coincidental confluence of scheduling that will highlight building hopes of a breakthrough in relations between the two powers. Observers will be watching to see whether the two leaders meet physically within the UN building in mid-town Manhattan, though the latest indication is that they might have a ceremonial greeting rather than a formal engagement.

Signs of a changing attitude under Iran’s new leader have been coming thick and fast in recent days. On Friday, Rouhani, who was elected president as a moderate candidate in June and took up the post last month, called for “constructive interaction with the world” in an opinion article published by the Washington Post.

In language that starkly contrasted with his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he wrote: “Gone is the age of blood feuds … A constructive approach to diplomacy … means engaging with one’s counterparts.”

Rouhani went on to say that the old “Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s losses”, and expressed a desire to move “beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States”.

The recent, more conciliatory tone from Tehran is being seen in Washington as the best hope of an end to the hostile stand-off with the Islamic Republic since Obama came to office in 2009, when he promised to try and put the two country’s relations on a new footing. Were Obama and Rouhani to meet in New York next week, it would be the first face-to-face interaction between the countries’ presidents since the Iranian revolution of 1979.

The driving force for the apparent glasnost in approach in Tehran appears to be the on-going international sanctions that are extracting a heavy price on the Iranian economy. Geneive Abdo, a former Guardian Tehran correspondent who is now an Iran expert at the non-partisan think tank the Stimson Center, said the sanctions “have never been this deep or broad. Oil exports are plummeting and Iran can no longer participate in the international banking system which prevents it selling goods for hard currency.”

Abdo said there are indications the regime fears that prolonged economic hardship could instigate another round of popular protests such as the “green” unrest of 2009 which was then harshly crushed.

Judging from past experience, the key to whether Rouhani can effect real change will be the support, or lack of it, of the true power in the land, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. There too, signs are so far promising.

On Tuesday Khamenei used the expression “heroic leniency” that is being interpreted as a euphemism for a softer stance on foreign policy. The following day, 11 political prisoners were freed from jail.

Apart from Rouhani’s appearance at the UN on Tuesday, there will be other opportunities to read the mood music in New York next week. On Thursday he will be speaking in the city at an event co-hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society, and he will also make appearances on CNN and on Charlie Rose’s interview show on PBS.

Obama has promised to test out the new apparent openness to dialogue in Tehran. But administration officials are at the same time making clear that there will be no lifting of sanctions without real movement from the regime.

In particular, Iran will have to accept stringent controls on its disputed nuclear programme, which the US and its allies see as a path to acquiring nuclear weapons. Negotiations on nuclear enrichment may prove to be the most difficult shift to get past Iran’s hardliners and Rouhani is treading carefully: in his Washington Post article, he repeated the conventional argument that for Iran, developing a “peaceful nuclear energy program” is “about who Iranians are as a nation.”

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