September 29, 2013 5:50 pm

Rouhani’s success at UN raises Iranian hopes for answers to nuclear impasse

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President Hassan Rouhani, home after an unprecedented diplomatic frenzy at the UN last week, has raised hopes among many of his countrymen of a solution to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme.

His efforts – notably a historic phone call with Barack Obama, the US president – may have made the centrist cleric an even bigger thorn in the side of hardliners in the Islamic republic: a few dozen hurled eggs and a shoe at him as he returned from New York.

But although the attack was a stern reminder to Iran’s newly elected president that his opponents do not intend to give him much time and space for diplomacy, analysts believe Mr Rouhani’s efforts on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly had the blessing of the highest echelons of the Islamic regime. Those efforts included bringing together John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, the first such high-level meeting since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Hossein Naghavi, a member of Iran’s parliament, said the president had received “the necessary permission” from “the system”, a coded way of referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and ultimate decision maker, to speak to Mr Obama by telephone on Friday just before he left New York for Tehran.

State-run television channels, which operate under the supreme leader’s authority and usually reflect regime policy, did not broadcast the protest against the president and instead praised his UN visit as successful.

Ayatollah Khamenei authorised Iranian negotiators to show “heroic flexibility” in nuclear talks just before the delegation left for New York, a clear sign that Iran’s top leader was for the first time prepared to make compromises over the nuclear programme, even if it involved making direct contact with the US.

Analysts believe Ayatollah Khamenei has largely curbed the fundamentalists, including the elite Revolutionary Guard, persuading them not to block Iran’s fresh round of diplomacy with the US and other big powers involved in the nuclear talks.

Mohammad Qouchani, the editor of pro-reform Aseman weekly, said the “unity of the ruling system”, in which Iran’s president and the supreme leader were fully co-ordinating their strategy, was unique in the country’s recent history, which has seen several former presidents challenge the ayatollah.

“This is a brilliant point in the Islamic republic history,” he said, adding that this co-ordination had helped sideline the most radical segments of the political establishment.

Ali Motahhari, a conservative parliamentarian, said the reason Iran had been unable to show such flexibility a decade ago was that “we did not have this nuclear power or this influence in the world, such as the influence in Syria, which has made the US need us to help resolve the Syrian crisis”.

Mohammad-Taghi Rahbar, a senior conservative cleric in the central city of Isfahan, said the “Death to America” slogans chanted at all Friday prayers could be dropped if Washington showed goodwill towards the Islamic regime. “It is not a sermon in the Koran to oblige us to always chant ‘Death to America’,” he said.

Nonetheless, the most radical of Iran’s hardliners, who were roundly defeated during the June presidential election and have since been sidelined, remain unconvinced. Observers believe their strongest attacks on Mr Rouhani will come next year when political factions start competing over the parliamentary election in early 2015. That could partly explain why Mr Rouhani is in a hurry to deliver on foreign policy and the easing of sanctions, they suggest.

Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of Kayhan, a hardline newspaper, signalled on Sunday that the radicals did not intend to give the president a clear run. Mr Rouhani had not achieved anything in New York, he said, adding that the telephone conversation with Mr Obama was “the most regretful part and the biggest advantage Iran… gave to the rival”.

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