Perhaps it’s the altitude. Maybe it’s the rich food — or the rich people. Or maybe the word for chutzpah in Farsi is “Davos.”
For whatever reason, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have been putting on a brass-neck display this week in Switzerland — and Rouhani’s speech Thursday at the World Economic Forum was no exception.
Rouhani and Zarif are busy trying, with intermittent success, to beguile the West into submission. (They’ve left the executions of Kurdish activists, the suppression of the Baha'i and the imprisonment of Christian pastors for the to-do lists of other senior Iranian officials.) In the course of the latest iteration of their charm offensive, they’ve made some inadvertently hilarious statements.
My favorite might be this tweet Wednesday that came from Rouhani’s account (which is apparently managed by aides): “Terrorism will come back to haunt those who sponsor it.If a govt thinks it can topple another govt by supporting terrorists, it’s 100 percent wrong.”
This is from the president of a country that sits on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and that supplies skilled terrorists, financing and arms to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has turned Syria into hell itself. Iran also funds and supplies a Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, that murders its political rivals and is responsible for terrorist acts around the globe.
A comment nearly as audacious came from Zarif, who made this statement to CNN’s Jim Sciutto Wednesday: “Why don’t we allow the Syrians to talk about how they can conduct a free and fair election? Why do people need to set an agenda and impose their agenda on the Syrian people?”
Zarif is the foreign minister of a country ruled by an unelected “supreme leader,” talking about an Iranian client, Assad, who uses Iranian-supplied arms to kill political dissidents.
Another candidate for most galling statement made by an Iranian leader comes from Rouhani’s Twitter account last week: “Our relationship w/ the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.” This tweet was deleted by unknown hands — it was probably seen as a bit too pushy (or a bit too close to the truth) by the Iranian foreign ministry.
Rouhani managed to be both impudent and on-message Thursday in his address at Davos, where he announced “that one of the theoretical and practical priorities of my government is constructive engagement with the world.” By “world,” of course, he did not mean Israel, a member-state of the United Nations that Iran is seeking to annihilate. And he didn’t seem to be referring to Iran’s many Arab neighbors, which the Iranian government has been seeking to destabilize and undermine for three decades. And he clearly wasn’t making reference to Thailand, Georgia, Azerbaijan and the United States, all of which are countries where Iranian-sponsored terrorists have recently been operating.
Rouhani, in his speech, made another assertion that could be characterized fairly as both bold and misleading: “I strongly and clearly state that nuclear weapons have no place in our security strategy, and Iran has no motivation to move in that direction.” Iran has spent billions of dollars in its pursuit of nuclear weapons technology, and in pursuit of the kind of highly enriched uranium that has only one purpose. It has suffered the loss of billions more because of sanctions designed to prevent it from reaching the nuclear weapons threshold. But facts be damned: There’s a charm offensive to be waged. And Davos is quite apparently ready to be charmed.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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