He reiterated claims that he had made in public statements the prior week about US-Iranian relations entering a new chapter. And while these soundbites may have provided support for the long-debated notion that Rouhani is a comparative moderate, his UN speech also expressed distinctive animosity toward the West, as by following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s line in blaming it for current Middle Eastern instability.
This was an aspect of the speech that Fox News’ Neil Cavuto focused on in discussing it with former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who had participated in a protest rally headed by the Organization of Iranian American Communities and the National Council of Resistance of Iran that same day. The rally sought to bring particular attention to the ongoing violations of human rights under Rouhani’s tenure, and Ridge used the regime’s behavior and its ongoing rhetoric to support the claim that it would surely violate the nuclear deal with the P5+1 soon after it receives upwards of 100 billion dollars in sanctions relief.
An article published in the Jerusalem Post on Monday makes much the same point about Iran’s untrustworthiness, although it does so with reference to the Islamic Republic’s rhetoric not just toward the West but toward Israel and the Jewish people. The article traces much of the history of the regime’s Holocaust denial and calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and it argues that such ideological commitments – which sometimes contravene logical behavior on the international stage – illustrate the threat the Iran poses to all of modern civilization.
Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal have been making this point for months and arguing that the regime’s extreme ideology makes it uncommonly likely to continue pursuing a nuclear weapon in spite of international agreements, and even to use one if it does. But in a larger sense, Tom Ridge and other critics of the regime worry that attempts at rapprochement with Iran will lead it wield more influence in opposing US interests in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration evidently remains committed to that policy of rapprochement, on the assumption that the two nations’ interests can be generally brought into convergence. As Reuters reports, Obama expressed this viewpoint in his own speech at the UN General Assembly when he specifically declared that the US would be willing to work with both Iran and Russia to try to bring about an amicable solution to the crisis of civil war in Syria.
But his further remarks unintentionally highlighted how unlikely such a solution is. Obama insisted that the situation in Syria cannot return to the status quo prior to the civil war, which began as a popular uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. His leadership was widely expected to collapse in the early days of the war before foreign support, primarily from Iran and Russia, helped to turn the tide. Since then, this support has only grown, and by some accounts Iran has fundamentally reorganized Assad’s forces under its own leadership.
In light of this, it has appeared highly unlikely that Iran would consent to any solution that involves the end of Assad’s rule. And even before his speech at the UN, Rouhani seemed to confirm this suspicion. The Economic Times reported that in a speech over the weekend the Iranian president declared that “the government in Damascus cannot be weakened,” whatever the resolution to the current war may be. While he did not specifically mention Assad, it seems clear that this was meant to imply the retention of the very status quo that Obama spoke against.
Interestingly, after meeting with French President Francois Hollande recently, Rouhani asserted that prior Western insistence upon regime change in Syria had substantially weakened. Obama’s remarks at the UN seem to directly contradict this, at least as far as the US government is concerned. But Obama’s critics have aggressively criticized him for appeasing the Iranian government in other areas and for even backing down on his stated red lines for the Syrian government, all in the interest of securing a nuclear deal and maintaining a policy of rapprochement with Iran.
These critics tend to believe that Iran has gotten the better of these policies and that it is now in a position to exploit the excessive trust of the Obama administration. Such critics are sure to focus on Rouhani’s aggressive rhetoric toward the West as evidence that this situation is still ongoing. Indeed, UPI notes that on Sunday the Iranian president raised the possibility of prisoner swaps between the two nations, but his comments clearly indicated the belief that Iran is in a position to make upfront demands as it arguably did during the nuclear negotiations.
Rouhani was referring to the cases of three Americans who are acknowledged as Iranian prisoners and are regarded by their advocates in the West as hostages, being held in large part for the sake of leverage over the US. Again underscoring the views of regime opponents, President Rouhani said that if the US immediately releases Iranian nationals arrested for sanctions violations, “the right environment will be open and the right circumstances will be created for us to do everything within our power and our purview to bring about the swiftest freedom for the Americans held in Iran as well.”
Naturally, critics of the regime will not accept such upfront concessions to Iranian demands. And with the Obama administration having little to gain by risking the release of sanctions violators, it seems all but certain that the climate of rapprochement will not extend to this issue unless the Iranians show willingness to deal more equitably with the West. The aggressive elements of Rouhani’s speech are only the latest indication that this is also unlikely. And meanwhile, Obama’s comments on Syria indicate that there are limits on how far the US will be willing to reach out to the Iranian regime for cooperation on each other’s foreign policy aims.