But this characterization of the Rouhani government has been fiercely disputed during its three years in power, with various human rights organizations and political groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran insisting that the administration’s differences are merely window dressing and that some aspects of life in the Islamic Republic have actually gotten worse following Rouhani’s 2013.
Helped along by foreign negotiating partners, particularly the administration of US President Barack Obama, the Rouhani administration was able to keep hold of its moderate image at least as long as those parties were engaged in nuclear negotiations, which ultimately yielded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015. However, the subsequent implementation of that deal has contributed to questioning of Rouhani’s and Zarif’s moderate credentials, and for reasons other than Iran’s consistently bad human rights record.
That had been the focus of much, though not all of the criticisms of claims about Tehran’s burgeoning moderation. Human rights groups worried that narrow focus upon the nuclear issue was distracting attention away from Iran’s domestic issues such as the escalating rate of executions, which reached nearly 1,000 individuals in 2015. However, President Obama had made comments around the time of the agreement, insisting that Iran’s human rights record and support for terrorism would continue to be addressed, separately from the nuclear issue.
It seems to be generally understood that the Obama administration’s expectations were that these other issues would begin to see marginal improvements under the Rouhani government after the JCPOA set the stage for larger-scale political and cultural contacts between Iran and the West. But this expectation began to face trouble even before the nuclear negotiations concluded, as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei anticipated attempts at cultural “infiltration” and insisted that Iranian officials avoid all negotiations with the US over issues unrelated to the nuclear deal.
This in turn set the stage for – instead of broader reconciliation – intensification of Iran’s anti-Western propaganda. And over the course of the subsequent year, this escalation not only went forward, it proceeded with direct participation from the so-called moderate Rouhani. The Reuters on Rouhani’s speech to the General Assembly suggests that this pattern is continuing, as the Iranian president took the opportunity to once again accuse the US of inadequate adherence to the JCPOA. In the same speech, Rouhani also actively contributed to the ongoing escalation of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, describing the latter as a divisive force in the Middle East.
Iran News Update previously reported that some analysts and commentators had been looking forward to Rouhani’s visit to the General Assembly and wondering if he would strive to increase his public profile by reaching out to his American counterpart, or if he would instead choose to further appease hardliners and the supreme leader, who has ultimate authority over all policy matters and largely controls Iran’s public media narratives.
It appears that Rouhani chose the latter alternative in the present case. But in so doing, he merely reiterated anti-American sentiments that both he and Zarif have expressed repeatedly in recent months. Specifically, Rouhani accused the US of a “lack of compliance” with the nuclear deal, due to the ongoing difficulties that the Islamic Republic faces in regaining access to international banking institutions. The US financial system is still barred from interacting with the Iranian system, and this has understandably contributed to reluctance on the part of entities that might have interactions with both of them.
The continued enforcement of these restrictions does not constitute violation of the JCPOA, but Tehran has repeatedly insisted that the US should be doing more to facilitate Iran’s economic recovery. Rouhani’s speech also asserted that the international community would be in agreement with Tehran and would object to “any failure on the part of the United States in implementing” the nuclear deal. This appeal to the international community is arguably reflective of earlier strategies to encourage European businesses to put pressure on the US to remove obstacles to their investment in Iran.
In what may be one example of that strategy, Iran recently withdrew its order for six of the 118 aircraft it had arranged to purchase from the European manufacturer Airbus. In so doing, Iran claimed that the US had delayed too long in providing Airbus with licenses that are required for the sales as a result of the American parts in the aircraft. Similar licenses are required for the sale of aircraft by Boeing, the American aircraft manufacturer that arrived at an agreement with Iran shortly after Airbus did.
The threat of more lost sales may have actually had an effect on the process of providing these licenses, as Airbus announced on Wednesday that it had received necessary permissions for the first of two bulk sales. According to the Associated Press, this was followed shortly afterward by a similar announcement from Boeing.
The AP report noted that these announcements were indicative of the Obama administration’s ongoing commitment to financial reconciliation with Iran. However, this enablement of Iranian transactions with both Europe and the US did not appear to impact Iranian rhetoric, considering that Rouhani’s speech the following day lodged the same complaints that Iranian officials had been repeating before the transactions were given the go-ahead.
The close proximity of the American licensing and the unfriendly Iranian speech can be expected to further contribute to perceptions that the Obama administration has been overly permissive with the Islamic Republic. That perception was expressed in a new context on Wednesday when the Daily Mail reported that President Obama had promised to veto a bill aimed at revealing the assets of Iranian leaders.
The president argued that such a bill would have adverse effects, prompting Iranian officials to more carefully conceal their assets while also potentially exposing US intelligence-gathering methods. But the bill’s sponsor presented it as a way of bringing new attention to Iran’s human rights abuses and support for terrorism at a time when these issues remain arguably hidden by the shadow of nuclear negotiations and the prospect of new trade deals. The criticism of Obama’s veto threat apparently suggests that his administration has been intentionally downplaying Iran’s worst activities so as not to cut against public support for rapprochement.
But regardless of the motives or causes behind such neglect, it is a problem that has been observed by a variety of commentators, both within Western nations and throughout the Middle East. In an editorial published by the New York Times on Thursday, Lebanese Member of Parliament and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri suggested that the international community is suffering from “amnesia” regarding former Iran-supported terrorist activities and that this has left the victims of Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah “dumbfounded.”
Hariri also said that Iran is blatantly extending its influence in the Middle East and pursuing Shiite-dominated hegemony while disregarding the “extended hand” of the Arab states. Such comments closely reflect statements by the leaders of those Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, explaining the reasons for escalating tensions with the Islamic Republic. However, those comments also contradict the portions of Rouhani’s speech that sought to blame the Saudis for worsening relations and also for the rise of sectarianism in the region.
But notwithstanding the accusations that the Obama administration is whitewashing Iran’s recent record, the regime’s efforts to simultaneously lash out at the US and its traditional allies may have a strong impact on future US policies. That is to say, it may undercut the motives behind the Obama administration’s regional reorientation and put the US back into alignment with Saudi Arabia and other enemies of Iran, at least once a new president takes over next year.
The Associated Press addressed this possibility in its report on the Airbus and Boeing deals, noting that the upcoming elections could still interfere with those deals, in spite of the White House’s current commitment to pushing them forward. If this does happen, and if US policy shifts back toward a pressure-based approach to Iran, then the US will likely find itself with ready support from other states whose animosity toward the Iranian regime has only intensified in the interim.
As a possible indicator of this, Reuters reported on Thursday that at least six fires have taken place within Iran’s oil industry infrastructure since July, and that this may have been the result of highly sophisticated hacking and sabotage efforts. Iranian officials have recently acknowledged that some industrial systems have been corrupted by malware, although they refused to link this to the fires, each of which have been given less potentially embarrassing explanations.
Reuters explicitly stated that if the fires were the result of cyberattacks, it would mean those attacks were almost identical to the famous Stuxnet infection that damaged some of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges at Natanz. No state or other entity claimed responsibility for that attack, but it is widely assumed to have been a joint US-Israeli operation. Israel remains the likeliest candidate for having carried out more recent attacks, but collaboration with the US is unlikely in light of Obama administration policies and resulting discord between the US and Israel.
But there have been occasional signs of burgeoning Arab-Israeli cooperation as the Saudis and Israelis both becoming increasingly anxious about escalating Iranian influence. If Israel is responsible for recent attacks and needs a partner in carrying them out, it is somewhat possible that Saudi Arabia and its regional allies could fill that role until such time as US policies change once again.