New York, not Tehran, is where Iran’s new leader and his government sell their foreign policy. They do deals on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, hold meetings, make history.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already done that he met British PM David Cameron on Wednesday, the first official meeting between an Iranian and British leader in more than 35 years.
He has also spoken to the world, for the second time. But in a tale of two speeches, Rouhani’s message has become much more urgent.
Rouhani’s message last year was more introductory. On September 24, 2013, he had been in the job a month when he had politicians and political watchers around the world at a standstill, as he gave the UN General Assembly’s most anticipated address.
For almost a decade, Iranian leaders were walked out on and ridiculed at the assembly in New York. That day changed the status quo – at least many perceptions of Iran internationally.
It was not a surprise to the more than 18 million people who voted Rouhani into the presidency just four months earlier. He had already told them during the presidential campaign that he “did not approve of Tehran’s present foreign policy,” adding it was “beneath the dignity of our country and nation. I am of the conviction that we should communicate with the world politely”.
According to Abas Aslani, Director General of Foreign Policy at Tasnim News, affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, “In his speech in UNGA last year, Rouhani emphasised fighting extremism. So when Rouhani took office in Tehran last year, he started to focus on this policy, engagement with the world particularly neighbouring countries. This was a good start.”
It was not just words either his diplomats set about repairing relations – his foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met US Secretary of State John Kerry and together with the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany they jump started nuclear talks, that eventually ended a decade of deadlock.
Barack Obama had even called President Rouhani as he departed New York the first official contact between and Iranian and US leader since 1979.
But this year, there is less hype about a possible meeting between the two men. Despite all the good will, the political meetings and hope, there is reality.
Rouhani told the Assembly, “I am coming from a region of the world whose many parts are currently burning in a fire of extremism and radicalism”.
‘Strategic blunders of the West’
He was referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), currently carving out a Caliphate on Iran’s doorstep. Rouhani blamed the “strategic blunders of the West” for turning parts of the world into a “haven for terrorists”.
Though the address sounded much more urgent, analysts say Rouhani has significantly improved Iran’s diplomatic position since his UNGA debut. “A lot of what Iran had been saying all along has become mainstream in terms of criticising Western policy, in their support of extremists in the region. Now everyone is talking about it. Iran was then, the lone voice,” Mohammad Marandi, Professor at Tehran University, told Al Jazeera.
Officially and publically, Iran is still barred from talks about key regional issues, including Syria.
But this nearing of opinions in the last year has manifested in Iraq, where Iran and the US have an unofficial working relationship, in that Iran’s advisors are on the ground, helping the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga in the fight against ISIL.
And now the US is bombing ISIL targets in Syria, in what Zarif calls the ‘Coalition of Repenters’.
Talk among some Iranian officials is that if they can use this leverage, Iran’s critical capital in Syria and especially Iraq, to get a better nuclear deal.
Officially all parties want to keep the issues separate.
Nuclear talks have been taking place for a week – since September 19 and in two months – time for a permanent deal will have run out.
Iran finds itself in the middle of a regional mess and under pressure as the nuclear deadline approaches.
But analysts, such as Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council, argues if anything can make use of the past year, time in New York can. In Iranwire, Marashi argues that Rouhani could build the momentum needed for an end deal.
And as the last year has put Iran’s policies to the test, the next two months will tell if reality amounts to more than goodwill and photo ops in New York.