Hawks at Home—Obama and Rohani's Shared Obstacle

Unless you’re someone who relishes the prospect of U.S.-Iran conflict, President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday didn’t disappoint. Recognizing the opportunity presented by the new Iranian president, the speech marked a return to the conciliation of Obama’s first term, only this time backed up by several years’ worth of economic sanctions.

While it’s easy to dismiss Obama’s reiteration of America’s commitment to the United Nations at the top of the speech as the usual internationalist boilerplate, the importance of robust American participation in multilateral institutions is something that has underpinned his administration’s approach to foreign policy. (For a wide-angle view of the speech, read John Judis’s excellent take.) It’s this approach—pursuing U.S. goals within a broader multilateral framework—that has facilitated the ongoing international effort to pressure and cajole Iran to address concerns over its nuclear program.

Notably, the speech left out the usual “all options on the table” talk that actually serves to diminish, rather than strengthen, the threat of force. A country that keeps an aircraft carrier parked in the Persian Gulf doesn’t have to remind anyone of its options.

Obama acknowledged the history of tension between the United States and Iran, including the U.S.'s role in toppling the government of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, which continues to color Iranian views of U.S. intentions. “I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight—the suspicions run too deep,” he said. “But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”

As for Iranian President Hassan Rohani, while he couldn’t help but benefit from comparisons to his predecessor, 9/11-truther and Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his speech was a bit of a let down. After several weeks of conciliatory statements and gestures, Rohani delivered a frank, sometimes rambling assertion of Iran's own interests and rights. It was an important reminder that negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the countries with permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) will not be easy. Still, even if Rohani’s outreach didn’t match Obama’s, the speech contained an important message that Rohani’s government stands to address the international community's concerns over its nuclear program and to engage constructively over other regional issues, particularly Syria. The real work will begin when the foreign ministers sit down together later this week.

In as much as he meant it to be heard in Iran as well as New York, Rohani’s speech was also a reminder that he has his own hawkish domestic politics to deal with. And he understands that Obama has the same problem.

"I listened carefully to the statement made by President Obama today at the General Assembly," Rohani said. “Commensurate with the political will of the leadership in the United States and hoping that they will refrain from following the short-sighted interest of warmongering pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences.” Basically, Rohani’s message to Obama was, “You try to handle your hard-liners, I’ll try to handle mine, and let’s see if we can get something done.”

“The speech seemed designed to create some breathing space for Rouhani with potential hard-line spoilers back in Iran without doing huge damage to the prospects for improving relations with Washington,” said Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East. “But while Rohani may have thread that needle intellectually, the actual words will be spliced and used against him by hawks and skeptics in the United States and elsewhere, and there was no game-changing turn of phrase.” The speech wasn’t a disaster, Kahl said, “but given raised expectations, the combination of a lukewarm speech and the Iranians ‘rejecting’ an ‘encounter’ with Obama will provide some ammunition for folks rooting for diplomacy to fail.”

Those folks have been out in force over the past weeks and have been helpfully clear about how inconvenient it is to have to contend with an Iranian leader who isn’t a raving lunatic. “I miss [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad,” Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told The Hill earlier this week. “He was so 'what you see is what you get.’”

Some have sought to torpedo Obama’s diplomacy by raising the bar unrealistically high. A group of Republican senators sent the president a letter insisting that Iran must be denied the right to domestic uranium enrichment—broadly understood as a nonstarter for any realistic agreement—and throwing a demand for political reform into the mix. Rather than pause to explore the possibilities of Rohani’s offer, the senators write, “now is the time to increase pressure and stand with the Iranian people,” as if standing with the Iranian people could be accomplished by rejecting the diplomatic initiatives of the man they just elected, and over the presumed preferences of Iran’s own supreme leader.  

Then there’s Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who from the moment Rohani was elected has insisted that Iran’s new president is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The usual groups have followed Netanyahu’s lead in making that case in the U.S.   

It’s interesting how closely these sentiments resemble those of Iran’s own hard-liners when Obama was elected. Shortly after the 2008 election, an editorial in Iran’s hard-line Keyhan newspaper, essentially the mouthpiece of Iran's supreme leader, warned that, despite his stated desire for better relations, the new American president was “a hawk in dove’s clothing.”

"Obama's election victory in 2008 was a huge disappointment for Iran's hard-liners,” says Meir Javedanfar, an Iran analyst and lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. Many Iranian hard-liners believe that the U.S.’s real goal is, and has always been, the destruction of the Islamic Republic, and would “prefer to have a U.S. president who threatens war, not peace,” Javedanfar says. “The arrival of Obama brought with it the dangers of rapprochement, which is why Keyhan tried to discredit Obama from the very beginning by saying that he was no different than Bush.”

Observing the hubbub over a possible handshake between Rohani and Obama, which ended up not happening, former Bush administration Middle East policy hand Michael Doran, one of the Obama administration’s fiercest Twitter critics, scoffed, “For the greatest power on Earth, a democracy, to run panting after a two-bit terrorist state is an unseemly spectacle.” While this is obviously a tendentious rendering, it’s quite useful for what it reveals about the hawkish mind-set: In seeking an un-hostile encounter with Rohani, Obama failed to uphold American pride. One can easily imagine the Farsi version of this coming out of the Revolutionary Guard headquarters: For a great historic power such as Iran to run panting after the Great Satan is humiliating for us.

To be clear, no one is claiming that Rohani is some sort of magical peacenik Santa Claus. He’s a member of the Iranian revolutionary elite—indeed, that’s precisely why he is now able to operate with the supreme leader’s support. Nor is anyone insisting that the web of sanctions currently in place should be unwound simply because Rohani has a grandfatherly smile. But, at the very least, it should be obvious that now isn’t the moment to pile on new sanctions. And it’s hard to think of a worse idea than for Congress to pass a resolution authorizing military force against Iran, as Senator Lindsey Graham has said he's preparing to do, right at the moment that Iran’s president is engaged in the most sustained outreach to the United States since the revolution.

A key divide right now is between those who recognize that Iran has politics, and those who don’t. For those who don’t, and who believe that Iran’s government is unified and undifferentiated in its villainy, and that any appearance of disagreement is simply projected onto Iran by naïve Westerners, nothing the U.S. does or doesn’t do really matters.

But others recognize that, even if the range of views within the regime is small, and has grown smaller over recent years, there is still some measure of disagreement over the value of rapprochement with the United States and that Iran’s supreme leader has, against his own inclinations and suspicions, given Rohani some room to run.

Is Rohani serious, or is it all a trick? In the end, there’s only one way to find out: Talk. As Rohani himself has made clear, his time is limited. He has his own skeptics to contend with, and just like Obama’s, they’re waiting to pounce if he doesn’t deliver on his promises.