At UN, Rouhani needs to play to the home crowd

High-level Iranian officials will be taking part in the 71st United Nations annual General Assembly in New York next week. AP Photo
High-level Iranian officials will be taking part in the 71st United Nations annual General Assembly in New York next week. AP Photo

High-level Iranian officials, including foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, will be taking part in the 71st United Nations annual General Assembly in New York next week.

It comes at a significant time for Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who has attended the three previous General Assembly sessions, as it is the last of his presidential terms and could be seen as the beginning of his campaign for the 2017 presidential elections.

Mr Rouhani’s government will probably use a different approach at the UN this time. The audience it will be targeting will not just be the regional and western nations, but Mr Rouhani’s domestic constituents and Iran’s hardliners.

To win the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the election, Mr Rouhani’s government will most likely pay heed to the narrative favoured by Mr Khamenei and the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG).

In the recent past, Iran has made moderate speeches at the UN but this time it will be trying to appease both the moderates – the majority of the Iranian population who voted for Mr Rouhani – and the hardliners.

The main issue will probably be terrorism. The Iranian government will attempt to spread the narrative of Mr Khamenei and the IRGC that Iran is an indispensable force in fighting ISIL and other extremist groups, that regional and global powers need to join Iran in this battle, and that Iran is the victim of terrorism in the region. The speech will most likely focus on buttressing the argument that the international community needs to support the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, to defeat terrorism.

The General Assembly will also be a crucial platform for Mr Rouhani and his team to conduct talks with their American counterparts behind closed doors.

Mr Zarif and United States secretary of state John Kerry have previously used such opportunities to increase tactical cooperation between Tehran and Washington and cut deals that would increase the popularity of both Iran’s moderates and the US Democratic Party.

The second issue will probably be the future of the nuclear deal reached between Iran and P5+1 powers – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany – in July 2015.

The nuclear deal has became one of the most contentious issues in the region and is the underlying pillar of disagreement between Iran’s moderates and hardliners.

Since Iran received the major sanctions relief available under the deal, the hardliners have ratcheted up their criticism of the nuclear accord in an attempt to undermine Mr Rouhani’s popularity. They argue that the agreement did not provide economic relief to the Iranian people and that the US has not changed its behaviour. In one of his latest speeches, Mr Khamenei claimed that the United States is attempting to “destroy Iran’s economic relationships with other countries”.

He added: “Was it not supposed to be so that the unjust sanctions would be removed and it would have an effect on people’s lives? After six months, is there any tangible effect on the lives of the people?”

Mr Rouhani’s team at the UN will probably try to demonstrate some positive aspect of his legacy, such as how the nuclear agreement has improved Iran’s economy and helped avoid more tension in the region.

To appease Mr Khamenei, Mr Rouhani’s team is also likely to criticise the United States, highlighting Washington’s failure to let Tehran rejoin the financial global system. Iran’s UN speech will most likely repeat Mr Khamenei’s message, in a more diplomatic way, that the US has been “breaking oaths, not acting on their commitments and creating obstacles”.

Mr Rouhani’s team will also address the economy and trade. His administration has been reiterating the message that Iran is open for business and trade deals across the globe. Nevertheless, these business deals are usually done at governmental level due to the IRGC and Khamenei’s monopoly over the economy.

Whatever is said, the Iranian presence at the General Assembly will probably have little effect on Mr Rouhani’s popular vote in the presidential elections, as Iranians tend not to pay much attention to such forums.

A recent poll by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland revealed that the moderate camp’s popularity has decreased and hardline former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now represents the single largest threat to Mr Rouhani’s re-election. Mr Ahmadinejad is now only eight percentage points behind Mr Rouhani in the polls.

Also Mr Rouhani’s government is unlikely to receive the same warm welcome it did at the UN last year, due to Tehran’s military adventurism in the region, ballistic missile tests and other controversial behaviour.

Dr Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian- American political scientist and Harvard University scholar who is also president of the International American Council

Published: September 8, 2016 04:00 AM


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