When Iran’s moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani, makes his debut at the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, western leaders will likely stay riveted to their seats, eager for signs of compromise over Tehran’s nuclear programme that could defuse the 11-year-old standoff.
His hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prompted ritual walkouts during his annual jaunts to the Big Apple, which were full of sound and fury.
Revelling in the role of stage villain, Mr Ahmadinejad used the podium to deny the Holocaust, inveigh against the West and peddle conspiracy theories about the September 11 attacks on the US.
But Mr Rouhani, who was elected this summer on a promise to bring Iran in from the cold, is determined to cut a very different figure on the world stage. His administration has prepared the ground for New York with a sophisticated public relations drive, conducted over media new and old at home and abroad.
The charm offensive has included the release of prominent political prisoners, and New Year greetings to Jews worldwide, relayed by Twitter. Accompanying Mr Rouhani to New York will be Iran’s sole Jewish member of parliament.
There has also been what Mr Rouhani, called a “positive and constructive” exchange of letters with Barack Obama, the US president, apparently over both the nuclear issue and the conflict in Syria.
The White House, praising the “welcome rhetoric” from Iran, has hinted at the possibility of a historic meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Rouhani in New York next week. It might just be a handshake and brief exchange of pleasantries, but it would be the first encounter between an American and Iranian leader since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
Mr Rouhani insists world leaders gathering in New York should “seize the opportunity presented” by his election. “I urge them to make the most of the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given me and to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue,” he wrote in the Washington Post on Thursday.
Via NBC a day earlier, Mr Rouhani told an American television audience that he is hopeful of a diplomatic breakthrough over Iran’s nuclear programme which he categorically assured viewers is solely peaceful.
“We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so.”
Mr Rouhani even paid tribute to Mr Obama’s handling of the crisis over Syria, a key Iran ally, saying it was not a sign of weakness to seek diplomatic rather than military solutions in such cases. “We consider war a weakness and any government that decides on peace we look on with respect,” he said.
In his Washington Post column, Mr Rouhani said his country was ready to facilitate talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.
Of Mr Rouhani’s upcoming UN address, Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, said: “I suspect there will be little or no mention of Israel whatsoever in Rouhani’s speech. He will instead be talking about the kind of role Iran can play, a much more constructive role in international politics.” Mr Rouhani, himself a former chief nuclear negotiator who is nicknamed the “diplomat sheikh”, has made clear that he sees detente with the West — and the US in particular — as the key to solving Iran’s domestic problems.
His goal is to resolve the nuclear dispute to lift western sanctions that are choking Tehran’s economy. He will pave the way in New York to rebooting stalled nuclear negotiations with six world powers, including the US.
“On the nuclear issue the endgame should be a win-win,” Mr Rouhani told state television this month. “A win-lose game is meaningless. We are ready for this game. This job will begin in New York.”
Vitally, Mr Rouhani has secured invaluable backing from Iran’s hardline supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to cut a deal on the nuclear issue and ease a generation of hostility with the US.
Iran’s supreme leader is deeply mistrustful of the US, but Mr Rouhani told NBC that the septuagenarian ayatollah had given him “full power and authority” to negotiate over the nuclear programme.
Ayatollah Khamenei this week said Iran can show “heroic flexibility” in diplomacy. Addressing Revolutionary Guards commanders in characteristically vivid language, he added: “I am in favour of showing a champion’s leniency. A wrestler may give way for tactical reasons, but should remember who is its opponent and enemy.”
The ayatollah’s comments were also aimed internally, alerting powerful security hardliners at home that they should not attempt to scuttle Mr Rouhani’s attempt at negotiations.
Some seasoned Iran experts saw Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech as ground-breaking, even comparing it to the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s historic acceptance of the ceasefire with Iraq in 1988.
“The key thing is that Khamenei has given Rouhani the confidence to negotiate and make judgements and decisions that are within the framework of the Islamic republic’s interests,” said Baqer Moin, a London-based Iranian biographer of Ayatollah Khomeini. “Rouhani can now negotiate without worrying that he will be undermined by his hardline opponents.”
Tehran’s bottom line is that Iran maintains its “right” to enrich uranium for the peaceful generation of electricity
In his letter, Mr Obama did not rule out Iran’s maintaining a fuel cycle, provided Iran could verifiably prove its nuclear ambitions are solely peaceful.
The New York Times yesterday quoted a prominent adviser to the Iranian leadership saying that Mr Obama’s missive promised relief from sanctions if Tehran demonstrated a willingness to “cooperate with the international community, keep your commitments and remove ambiguities”.
Washington is intrigued but cautious over the flurry of goodwill signals from Tehran. “Rouhani’s comments are very positive, but everything needs to be put to the test, and we’ll see where we go,” John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said yesterday.
Equally, to avoid missing a landmark opportunity, the US must grasp Mr Rouhani’s olive branch, many Iran experts say.
“If Mr Rouhani can show that positive actions beget positive responses, he will have more room for compromise,” said Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group.
Mr Sick, who was a national security adviser during the US-Iranian embassy hostage crisis more than three decades ago, said: “The Iranians are tough bargainers, they have real principles, and they’re going to insist on them.”
But, he added: “They’re going to put those principles out in a much more attractive way than the previous administration. Ahmadinejad was a catastrophe for Iran.”