Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaks at his inauguration. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
President Hassan Rouhani’s just-completed visit to New York, which he capped with a phone conversation with President Obama—the first-ever discussion between leaders of the two countries since January 1979—was a triumphant one.
Without a single misstep, during several days in which Rouhani held meeting after meeting with world leaders, diplomats, foreign policy experts and Middle East specialists, and reporters, the new president of Iran showed himself to be ready for prime time. The Nation attended three of Rouhani’s gatherings, and watching him up close, it’s clear that he succeeded in what came to be called a “charm offensive”—one churlish commentator on CNN called it a “charm assault”—designed to persuade not just President Obama but the American people, too, that Iran is ready to deal.
More important, Rouhani convincingly stated that he has the authority to make a deal. Repeatedly, he and his aides, including the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, said that Rouhani’s overwhelming election in June—when he defeated a passel of ultraconservative and hardline candidates—means that he has a “mandate” to implement the agenda he campaigned on. That’s important, because Iran has real politics. Contrary to the assertions of many Iran-watchers in Israel and among hawks and neoconservatives in the United States, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the so-called supreme leader, is not a dictator. Instead, he rules by consensus, often reflecting competing and conflicting currents within Iran’s various power centers, from the military and the Revolutionary Guard to the clerics, themselves often split into several factions, the parliament and the various, complex institutions of the Iranian state. Rouhani’s strong victory in June, which surprised some, sent a message to Khamenei that Rouhani is not to be trifled with. Not only that, but Rouhani himself—who, after all, served for many years as one of two representatives of Khamenei on Iran’s national security council—has kept himself in the good graces of Khamenei while corraling an important domestic political coalition. That coalition includes Iran’s reformists, the Green Movement, important elements of the business community who often rally around former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and a disparate group of Iranian realists, think-tank dwellers and current and former national security experts.