Iranian President Hassan Rowhani lent a bit of credence to his reformist claims this weekend with a series of muscular diplomatic overtures to the United States that rivaled the more superficial outreach he began last week.
For the first time in decades, Iran’s head of government communicated directly with the American president when he and Barack Obama had a brief phone conversation. While one could describe this as yet another showy gesture, direct bilateral talks inherently provide an opportunity for Rowhani to develop a relationship with Obama and thus makes him more powerful. In a country where the ayatollahs still call the shots and conservatives dominate national politics, the ability to communicate independently with the U.S. president provides Rowhani the opportunity for candid discussions about his own political constraints. Both men seemed to go out of their way to brag the chat took place, with Rowhani’s social media team apparently tweeting about it but then having second thoughts — an incredible distillation of his two-pronged political strategy, making significant moves to ease painful sanctions with the West (likely with Khamenei’s approval) while simultaneously containing the fallout among hardliners at home.
Sunday saw Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explicitly describing the Holocaust as a historical event on American television, describing it as a “heinous crime” and “genocide” in an apparent advance from previous statements by Rowhani that arguably represented Holocaust denial. “One crime, however heinous — and Holocaust was a heinous crime, it was a genocide, it must never be allowed to be repeated — but that crime cannot be, and should not be, a justification to trample the rights of the Palestinian people for 60 years,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
At the same time, his deputy was reassuring the Iranian right that Rowhani would “never trust America 100 percent.” “Definitely, a history of high tensions between Tehran and Washington will not go back to normal relations due to a phone call, meeting or negotiation,” Deputy Abbas Araghchi was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.
The media blitz comes in the context of a fresh show of unity on stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They have historically maintained icy relations by went out of their respective ways to demonstrate mutual affinity after a meeting at the White House in Washington on Monday. A fresh round of negotiations with Tehran is scheduled for October and Geneva, and though the early signs are certainly encouraging, only then will we star to get a better sense of how far Rowhani — and Khamenei — will go.