by Jasmin Ramsey
The US and Iran made history today here in New York City. While many prominent American members of the press, academic, business and think tank worlds were listening intently to President Hassan Rouhani give a speech at a Asia Society/CFR-hosted event at the Hilton Hotel (where Jim and I were in attendance) and answer questions on some controversial issues later on (including one from yours truly), Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was talking to Secretary of State John Kerry at the UN in the highest-level organized meet between the two countries since the first year of Iran’s 1979 revolution.
Many were wondering what President Obama’s surprising announcement during his UN General Assembly speech about Kerry being directly involved in nuclear talks with Iran and the 6-world power P5+1 would boil down to. As of today it’s resulted in a handshake, a 30-minute meeting, positive reactions from both sides and suggestions of much more to come — hardly a bad start.
Laura Rozen and others have already reported on some of the details, including, for example, the fact that Kerry suggested to Zarif that they chat alone, which Zarif agreed to do. “We had a constructive meeting, and I think all of us were pleased that Foreign Minister Zarif came and made a presentation to us, which was very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect to possibilities of the future,” said Kerry in his post-meeting remarks. “Now it’s up to people to do the hard work of trying to fill out what those possibilities could do,” he said.
Rouhani seemed happy to see a smiling Zarif enter the Ballroom where around 200 people were seated shortly before the president finished answering a collection of the 40 or so questions that were posed to him. I’m sure the audience was also pleased after Asia Society president and moderator Josette Sheeran convinced Zarif to provide a briefer of the historic ministerial meeting that was hosted by EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
Zarif said that during the “very good and substantive meeting” it was agreed that Iran and its negotiating partners would “jumpstart the process” in moving forward by agreeing first to the “parameters of the endgame”; where Iran’s nuclear program will be in a year; deciding on steps that need to be taken to address each side’s concerns; and work towards finalizing them (he may have been referring to the entire negotiation process here) “within a year’s time” — a pleasant surprise for Zarif, who was apparently worried that the quickened timeline that Iran’s new government wants to operate on would have received a different response.
Zarif described his short bilateral meeting alone with Kerry (Rozen tweets that US P5+1 representative Wendy Sherman chatted with Iranian diplomats in the hall during this time) as “more than a chat”, by the way, which contrasts with the “moment” description used by Kerry. We don’t know yet exactly what they discussed during this time, but Zarif did seem very positive about Kerry’s “readiness” to work together, adding that “we now have to match words with actions”, which he hopes will be an “opportunity” rather than a “challenge.”
While the Kerry-Zarif meeting was tonight’s show-stopper, I was impressed by the question/answer period with Rouhani as well. All invitees were given an opportunity to write their questions down on paper upon entering the venue and as far as I can recall, everything that was put forward by Sheeran (the Iranians apparently had no say in what could and couldn’t be asked) focused on Iran’s most controversial issues, including Iran’s political prisoners, women’s rights and the Holocaust (see Mitchell’s post on this topic yesterday).
From what I could see, Rouhani was listening to everything in English and answering in Persian (all attendees had access to headphones broadcasting the audio in English and Persian). The entire 1.5 hour event posted above is worth watching, and I may write about it more before Monday (I have to trek back to DC tomorrow!) but I’m going to focus on my question now, since I’m feeling grateful that it was put forward along with my name. I asked Rouhani how he plans on navigating through domestic opposition to any kind of rapprochement between the US and Iran (at around 54:33), to which he responded:
Well, the government, after all, has actually witnessed a new era, a new environment that has been created by the people, I would say. So given that it’s created by the people, has brought about new conditions inside the country, and just as we are active in social, political and cultural fields, we — and the more we do in those fields, the more we will realize that this way of thought that is beginning to shape based on moderation will get stronger, and this can advance further, as time advances, and those who oppose it will normally just weaken in the process. But this is a long path, having said that, and we are just taking the initial steps here.
I can guess why his answer was not as in-depth as I hoped it would be. You probably can too.