Hassan Rowhani, the apparent moderate who surprised most political observers when he won the Iranian presidency earlier this year, made his first appearance at the Untied Nations in New York on Tuesday. But even though he did offer some modest rhetorical concessions to the West, most notably by declining to call the Holocaust a hoax in his General Assembly address and in interviews with local media, he failed to offer much in the way of a substantive break from his decidedly more vitriolic predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
While Rowhani went out of his way to claim Iran will never possess nuclear weapons, perhaps his most significant departure from conservative orthodoxy that has opened a small window for renewed diplomacy with the United States, he only vaguely acknowledged the possibility of Nazi crimes against humanity and specifically against European Jews, suggesting historians are somehow not in broad agreement on the fact that six million were killed in a systematic effort to wipe out an ethnic group.
So even if it is refreshing to hear Iran’s head of state do his best to be polite to the West without offending the ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard commanders watching his every move in the process, we have yet to see any real concessions in a bid to lift the crippling economic sanctions causing headaches in Tehran. Even meeting with Obama in some limited fashion was too much, Rowhani apparently embracing his predecessors‘ habits and dangling the possibility in back-channel discussions only to publicly snub the American president, a nice ego boost for Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran if nothing else.
The more optimistic take, of course, is that these gestures will evolve into something more concrete down the line, like the willingness to give up uranium enrichment in exchange for a major reduction in sanctions. After all, a genuine Iranian reformer would be wise to not move too quickly for fear of inviting some kind of public rebuke from conservative elites. Rowhani has yet to completely alienate American diplomats, who are sympathetic to his domestic political concerns. The next few weeks will be crucial, as he is still being defined by the American press and political establishment. If the conventional wisdom hardens that he is nothing more than a change of costume for Khamenei, a way to modernize Iran’s image worldwide without actually pulling back on its bellicose foreign policy, our new era of engagement with Iran could be over almost as quickly as it started.