by Peter Jenkins

On Sept. 24 the sense of excitement was palpable. “Will they, won’t they?” everyone was asking. No, the scene was not Edinburgh Zoo where panda-watchers are hoping for a rare conception in captivity. The scene was New York City, where Iran-watchers were wondering whether Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani would exchange a handshake.

In the event, they did not. However, there has been enough skilful diplomatic foreplay in New York this week, from both sides, for a peaceful consummation to remain a possible outcome to the nuclear dispute, at some point in the coming year.

That is despite the fact that President Rouhani’s statement to the UN General Assembly was hardly conciliatory. On the contrary he directed some harsh criticism at certain tendencies within the US foreign-policy making and security establishments. He deplored coercive economic and military policies, and a cult of strategic violence. He deprecated the camouflaging of regime change goals behind the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention. He condemned the use of drones against innocent people and the fanning of Islamophobia.

However, he took pains to stress his government’s readiness to engage in the resolution of the nuclear problem on the basis of certain principles, with which Secretary John Kerry’s team at State will be very familiar, and none of which need be deal-breakers..

And he stressed the Islamic Republic’s willingness to serve as a democratic “anchor of stability” in “an ocean of regional instabilities”. To those who like to depict Iran as undemocratic, and as a disruptive influence in the Middle East, this claim will seem ludicrous. Yet it can also be seen as a reminder that Iran is more democratic than most other Middle East states and that in the time of the last Shah the US relied on both Iran and Israel to contain revolutionary forces in the region. It is an indication that a new generation of Iranian leaders think of Iran as a status quo, not a revolutionary power.

Israeli diplomats boycotted President Rouhani’s statement. Had they been in the make-shift assembly hall, they would not have liked what he had to say about “the brutal repression” of the Palestinian people, the “criminal assassination” of Iranian scientists, and “warmongering pressure groups” in the US. It was as though he decided to get his rhetorical strike in first, having been briefed no doubt that next week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to draw a grotesque parallel between Iran and North Korea. (All who enjoy seeing dangerous politicians risk their reputations should look forward to Mr. Netanyahu’s appearance on the Assembly podium.)

Yet the Iranian president closed his statement with a moving reminder that the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths share common roots (not least in certain Zoroastrian ideas) and believe in the rewarding of virtue.

By preaching moderation and tolerance, and by condemning terrorist violence and extremism, President Rouhani laid himself open to the charge of hypocrisy. He failed to acknowledge that for much of the last 34 years the Islamic Republic has treated its own citizens with a distinct lack of tolerance and moderation. He glossed over the support the Republic has given to organisations that may have originated as resistance movements but have often resorted to the methods of terrorists.

In coming days, however, few statements will delivered from the Assembly podium that will be immune to the charge of hypocrisy. Too much honesty can threaten a politician’s survival. President Rouhani has only just taken office and has domestic foes.

Indeed, some observers have suggested that his UNGA statement was primarily for domestic consumption. That may be. But it was also for global consumption, intended to please many of the 120 states that make up the Non-Aligned Movement, of which Iran has the presidency. It was an offering to those who are tired of the bipolar conceit (the West/the Rest), tired of the pretention that Western values have a universal status, and tired of what Senator J. William Fulbright once termed “the arrogance of power”.

It was also a defiant assertion of Iran’s right to an independent perspective on regional and global affairs, and a reminder that the Islamic Republic is heir to one of the oldest civilisations on the planet. When it comes to wisdom, to producing answers to the ethical questions that have exercised philosophers for the last 2500 years, Iranians have nothing to learn from others, President Rouhani implied.

Photo Credit: ISNA/Mona Hoobefekr

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