x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Iranian charm offensive must produce action

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's conciliatory message is welcome but must be backed by action to be taken seriously

President Hassan Rouhani could hardly have asked for an easier task of making Iran’s message to the world more positive, given his predecessor’s predilection for inflammatory and bellicose grandstanding.

Even though the standard had been set particularly low by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr Rouhani’s charm offensive is still welcome. Even more promising is that his words seem to be backed by action, at least initially.

The default position for most international relations has to be one of cautious optimism and that should certainly be the case here, where there seems to be genuine prospect of a resolution on the nuclear issue – even if one still wonders whether Iran is showing its true colours.

Mr Rouhani has the benefit of a significant mandate as the most moderate of what was a group of candidates deliberately vetted, by the clerics who wield ultimate power in Iran, to exclude many of the candidates Iran’s progressive constituency would have supported.

The new president has skilfully prolonged his honeymoon period by projecting rapprochement, a tactic that he has ramped up before he addresses the United Nations next week.

Social media websites Facebook and Twitter have been briefly unblocked in Iran and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who represented protesters involved in the 2009 protest prompted by the disputed presidential election, has been released from a six-year jail term.

Mr Rouhani also appeared on American television network NBC News this week vowing that Iran has “never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so”.

That last statement is cogent proof why the approach of the West and the Gulf nations has to be one of “trust but verify” because it is exactly the same message Mr Ahmadinejad used while Iran doggedly continued to pursue a nuclear programme that had the specific potential to produce nuclear weapons.

Although Mr Rouhani’s words are welcome and, indeed, actions like the release of Mrs Sotoudeh are promising, there must be scrutiny that this is not simply a smokescreen to appease the West while Iran’s nuclear ambitions continue unchecked.

Iran’s conciliatory statements must be applauded, but they will need to be backed by concrete action.