Now that President Obama and Hassan Rouhani have had their historic phone call — the first contact between U.S. and Iranian leaders since 1979 — one has to ask whether the United States has finally found the Iranian “moderate” it has sought for years.
The question reminds me of a political cartoon I have kept in a file folder since 1986. In May of that year, Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, made a secret trip to Tehran to set up a new relationship with Iranian “moderates.” Rouhani was one of three midlevel officials he met, but the trip ended in an embarrassing failure.
The newspaper cartoon shows McFarlane wedged into a Tehran phone booth, frantically flipping the pages of a phone directory, as bearded Iranian revolutionary guards look on suspiciously. An aide shouts into McFarlane’s ear: “Nothing under ‘moderates,’ huh? Well, look under ‘middle-of-the-roaders’ — but just hurry!” The cartoon’s headline reads: “How DO they find those moderates in Iran, anyway?”
Have we finally found the answer — a longtime regime insider, who has morphed into that rarest of species — an Iranian moderate who can repair his country’s tortured relationship with the West? Not yet clear.
That is certainly the message Rouhani was at pains to sell at the United Nations and on every stop on his tireless charm offensive last week. Garbed in black robes and white turban, he relentlessly repeated the word moderation to diplomats, U.S. publishers and business executives, and think tankers and journalists. Typical example: “Moderation and reason will guide my government,” he declared at the start of an invitation-only session I attended with members of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society. He repeated the term three more times in the first two minutes of his talk.
Before Rouhani finished speaking, as if to provide living proof of Iran’s moderate intent, Iran’s U.S.-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, rushed into the room. Flush with enthusiasm, he came directly from the conclusion of talks at the United Nations about “jump-starting” negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which, he said, could be completed within a year. Zarif was nearly crushed by well-wishers and reporters who knew him from his years as Iran’s admired (and moderate) U.N. ambassador, before he was sidelined by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian president. Zarif spoke of his historic half-hour bilateral “chat” with Secretary of State John Kerry, the first such high-level U.S.-Iranian contact in decades.
Yet Iranian professions of “moderation” tell us little until we see how that term is translated into behavior. The question is not whether Rouhani (or Zarif) is an “Iranian moderate.” It’s whether domestic and international concerns have convinced the president, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that Tehran must behave more pragmatically in order to survive and thrive.
Listening to Rouhani, despite his barrage of boilerplate phrases, I heard indications of the pressures driving Iran’s regime to at least contemplate real changes (although the proof of any new pragmatism will emerge only from Iranian actions, not words).
The president spoke of the strong election mandate he received and of “Iran’s well-educated youth,” who deserve to see Iran play “a major role at the global level.” He talked of “rebuilding relations with the countries of Europe and North America,” including economic ties (earlier he had met with a half-dozen U.S. business leaders). We “can begin by avoiding any new tensions in the Iran-U.S. relationship,” he said.
Clearly, the Iranian leader recognizes that his country’s youthful population is impatient with harsh restrictions imposed during the Ahmadinejad era. He knows he was elected by a youth vote, which exploded into protest after 2009 elections were fixed. Those young people want jobs, Facebook, and Twitter.
He also knows that Iran’s economy will remain crippled under onerous international and U.S. sanctions until it can resolve global suspicions that it is building a nuclear-weapons capacity. There is no way he can satisfy his public’s aspirations so long as sanctions choke Iran’s oil revenue and economic growth.
Yet sanctions won’t disappear unless and until the regime drops its past determination to retain the ethos, and behavior patterns, of the Iranian revolution, which have kept Iran isolated from much of the world. So my ears perked up when Rouhani said his mandate called on him to find a “balance between realism and the ideals of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Perhaps it’s time, he seems to be saying, for Iran to move on.
And yet, when it comes to Iran’s behavior in the region, Rouhani’s pledges of pragmatism ring hollow. True, there is an improvement over Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel bombast and Holocaust denial. But when Rouhani says Iran wants to “discard extremism in relations with other states,” one can only sigh.
So long as Tehran arms the Bashar al-Assad regime, so long as it sends Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighters and Lebanese Hezbollah proxies to fuel Syria’s sectarian slaughter, Iran will be viewed as an outlier by most Mideast Arabs. So long as the regime views the region and the world primarily through the prism of its Shiite history and religion, it will create suspicion about its aims.
From Rouhani, we hear the words of a pragmatist who wants his country to take its rightful place in the world. But that will require a degree of Iranian realism that we have yet to witness. At that point, we can say we have found the “moderates” in Iran.