Obama, in closely watched remarks on Iran based on a diplomatic opening offered by Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, said the United States wants to resolve the Iran nuclear issue peacefully but is determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. "The roadblocks may prove to be too great but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," Obama said.
Ever since he took office, Rouhani has been on a public relations offensive aimed at the US/West and reformists within his country. His most recent salvo was an interview with NBC News in which he said he had full authority to conclude a nuclear deal with the US/West. He has also recently exchanged letters with President Barack Obama, overseen the release of 11 political prisoners, and cautiously warned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps about getting involved in the political arena. It seems now that Obama's address at the U.N. General Assembly, has given Rouhani a chance to transform this thaw in relations into a real diplomatic opportunity.
If Iran's recent political history holds true, Rouhani has a unique window of opportunity to win sanctions relief. The last three Iranian presidents before him were able to influence policy in their first year before their powers faded. Each came into office with a strong agenda: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's goal was economic liberalization; Mohammad Khatami aimed for a cultural opening, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad peddled a populist message. And all three were successful in making progress at the start of their terms -- though they all ran into strong resistance from the supreme leader as their tenure dragged on, which reversed their policies.
Rouhani is even better placed than his predecessors to have real influence. He enjoys support from a broad swath of the Iranian political spectrum -- from hard-liners to reformists -- in no small part because of the lessons each camp is drawing from developments across the region. Hard-liners realize that the "resistance policy" advocated by the previous team has not worked well. Resistance has brought Iran only more sanctions, led Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the brink of disaster, and lost Hezbollah the broad public support it once commanded across the region. They see Rouhani's strategy as a new approach toward the same goals, and they are willing to give it a try.
As for Iran's reformers, they look to Cairo and see what happened to deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi as a sobering lesson for what could have happened in Iran had they prevailed in 2009. A sharp confrontation with the old system and the security forces it controls, in other words, could have quickly brought about a de facto coup.
Rouhani has also made good use of the support he commands. Though his election was as much a surprise as that of his two immediate predecessors, he has quickly assembled an impressive team of like-minded, effective technocrats -- most of whom are acceptable to the hard-liners. His style is the smile, not the snarl, which disarms critics used to the previous crowd's exaggerated rhetoric.
Rouhani's book, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy -- which made the case that the deals negotiated with European powers in 2003 and 2004 preserved Iran's options while forestalling international pressure -- may serve as a blueprint for his current strategy.
The moment of truth is coming. Obama's address at the U.N. General Assembly today is by far the best overture Iran can possibly dream of from a U.S. President. If Iran is serious about a nuclear deal with United States, it should seize this unique opportunity of diplomacy. If a deal can't be made in the next few months, it's hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: AFP- US President: Barack Obama-addressing the U.N. General Assembly