Missing Ahmadinejad and Savaging “the Charm Offensive”

by Marsha B. Cohen

The ubiquitous smiling visage of Hassan Rouhani and his seemingly reasonable iterations of Iranian intentions are infuriating some Israelis.

Zvi Bar’el of Haaretz explains that “Israel’s fear of losing its justification for an attack on Iran and the fear that the United States may yet “fall into the trap” set by the “smooth language” of the Iranian president is driving it crazy.”

“Where is Ahmadinejad when we really need him?” asks Chemi Shalev in Haaretz.

The attention, some of it fawning, that is already being bestowed on the so-called “moderate” Iranian president has confirmed the widespread assumption of most analysts following Rohani’s election in August as Iran’s 7th president: that it wouldn’t take long for Israel and other critics of Iran to sorely miss his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

After all, for the past 8 years, Israel’s efforts to convince the world and especially the U.S. to tackle Iran’s nuclear designs head on relied on two main figures: the relentless Netanyahu and the equally adamant, Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad. And with all due respect to Netanyahu’s formidable public relations prowess, it was Ahmadinejad who served as Israel’s number one talking point, its strategic propaganda asset, a poster boy who self-explained Tehran’s sinister designs.

And Y-Net‘s Ron Ben Yishai lays out the four conditions that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says should be met in order for the U.S. to ease sanctions against Iran:

Netanyahu specified them as “Halting all uranium enrichment; removing all enriched uranium; closing (the uranium enrichment facility at) Qom; and stopping the plutonium track,” which is being pursued at the Arak reactor. Netanyahu said that “until all four of these measures are achieved, the pressure on Iran must be increased and not relaxed.”

Netanyahu’s words were most likely meant for the ears of the members of Congress, so they will not let Obama get carried away by Rohani’s overtures and urge the president to increase the economic pressure on Iran and impose additional, more severe sanctions. The Israelis are also telling their American counterparts that just like in the case of the Syrian crisis, a credible military threat is needed in order to get results on the diplomatic track.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, characterized Rouhani on Friday as “a master of deceit who has been putting on an all-out charm offensive since he took office, replacing Ahmadinejad” and said any talks with Rouhani was “a fool’s errand.” The staunchly pro-Israel (and defender of the mujahadeen-e-khalq (MEK), even while it was on the State Dept. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations) also shared Israeli nostalgia for Rouhani’s predecessor in a statement that was given prominent coverage by Haviv Rettig Gur in the Times of Israel: “In many ways Rouhani is much more dangerous than [former Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. At least with Ahmadinejad you get what you see – his hatred for Israel and the United States is not disguised with rhetoric or spurious gestures of goodwill.”

Members of Congress notwithstanding, Raphael Ahrens, the diplomatic correspondent for the Times of Israel, opines that “right now Rouhani is singing a new tune, and Netanyahu risks sounding like a broken record, repeating a song people would much rather not listen to anymore.”

Meanwhile, Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s parliament (Knesset) and of Netanyahu’s cabinet, has scored big time in laying claim to the meme that derisively characterizes Rouhani’s efforts to improve US-Iran relations as a “charm offensive,” which has gone viral since Sept. 8, when Yaakov Lappin of the Jerusalem Post reported:

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is about to launch a charm offensive aimed at calming Western fears over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and hopes to “laugh all the way to the bomb,” Yuval Steinitz, the international relations, intelligence and strategic affairs minister, said on Sunday.

Speaking at the Institute for Counter-terrorism’s 13th annual international conference, Steinitz said, “If I read Rouhani correctly, I predict that in [the] near future, maybe at the start of [the] UN General Assembly session next week, we’ll see an offensive of friendliness and moderation toward the West, to influence Western media, public opinion and leadership in Europe and the US and to calm fears over a nuclear Iran.”

Describing Rouhani as “more sophisticated and smarter than his predecessor [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad,” Steinitz warned that the Iranian president plans to deceive the international community to buy his country more time to develop its military nuclear program.

In a recent interview with the Sheldon Adelson-owned daily Israel Hayom, Steinitz reiterated, “Rouhani has launched a charm offensive on the West, but he plans to charm his way to a nuclear weapon.”

But it was Iranian-American Professor Mohsen Milani, writing in Foreign Policy way back in June, who casually used the phrase “charm offensive” in the body of a thoughtful article arguing that Iran’s foreign policy would likely start with a charm offensive toward all of Iran’s neighbors, particularly the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Describing Rouhani as “someone with whom one could do business,” Milani offered numerous policy recommendations, among them that the U.S. invite Iranian engagement on Syria and Afghanistan, and “help the forces of moderation in Iran by trying to work with the new president.”

The next day, the hawkish news aggregation site Real Clear World emblazoned the headline “Get Ready for Rouhani’s Charm Offensive.”

“In my articles and in a number of interviews I have done since June, I have consistently talked about the “charm offensive” by the IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran] in the context of Iran’s strategic decision to settle its nuclear dispute with the West and explore the possibility of normalizing its relations with the US,” Milani explained in an e-mail to Lobe Log. “If we only emphasize the ‘charm offensive’ without talking about the key strategic decision Iran seems to have made, then we could create the impression that what has been taking place is devoid of any substance and is but a sophisticated and sinister public relations scheme.”

In the past two weeks and particularly in the past few days, the meme of Rouhani’s “charm offensive” has been dominating many U.S. news sources. With some exceptions, these pieces have mostly ignored the possibility that the U.S. and Iran have shared interests, and approached the “Rouhani charm offensive” as a tactic for evading progress rather than evidence of a strategic decision made and supported by major players within the Iranian government. Here’s a sampling of major and minor sites: Associated PressCBS; Center for Security Policy; Christian Science Monitor; CNNFinancial Times; Fiscal Times; Front Page Magazine; Fox News; France 24; Guardian; National Public RadioPBS News Hour; Time; Washington Free Beacon and the Washington Post.  

Rouhani, who left Iran for New York on Sunday, will attend the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, and deliver a speech before the UNGA that afternoon. The following day he is scheduled to address the special session of the Nuclear Disarmament Conference as the current chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), of which nearly two thirds of the members of the UN are members. Rouhani will also address foreign ministers of the NAM, and is expected to meet and hold talks with world leaders on the sidelines of the UNGA. He has “not ruled out” the possibility of meeting with President Obama.

According to the Times of Israel, Israel’s Channel 2 reported on Friday night that “administration officials have had several conversations with their Israeli counterparts recently to assure them that Rouhani’s outreach — which has seen the new Iranian president give a US TV interview, pen an op-ed in the Washington Post, and send other conciliatory messages to the US — will not prompt a reduction in sanctions pressure designed to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive.”

If that is all that comes of Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive,” somewhere in Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be smiling.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. President Obama will soon have to make a decision that could define his presidency. Will he seize the moment, sit down with Iran’s new president, and seek a way out of this dangerous impasse? Or, will he default to caution and let the opportunity slip through his fingers. To make a bold move he will have to enrage powerful forces working against any dialogue and possible agreement on both sides. Iranian hardliners believe that the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are not seeking an agreement but are only looking for a pretext to attack Iran and install a friendly regime. Surprisingly, the Israelis and many neocons in America have staked out positions that would confirm this view.

    To achieve a deal, President Obama must remind himself that America’s interests in the region are not identical to those of Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have resumed the war on Shia Islam (it started after the Prophet Mohammed died and his successor was being chosen). We see it in their actions throughout the region – in Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Israelis, on the other hand, do not want to give up their nuclear monopoly in the region to a country that has been its most dangerous adversary for several decades. While America shares Israel’s concerns about a nuclear Iran, it would benefit enormously in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan from establishing normalized relations with the Iranian regime.

    Let there be no mistake about this: making a deal with Iran will require courage on the part of President Obama. AIPAC, the Saudis, and the neocons will all come after Obama, smelling blood. There is a real prospect that any deal will fall apart if Congress sabotages its terms. If this opportunity slips away, Iran may retreat inward again, confirming to Iran’s reformers that the hardliners were right. That will inevitably lead to actions that are not in the long-term interests of the United States. Iran can join the Shanghai group (the SCO) to enhance its security and as a way to evade further sanctions by the West. And/or it can go shopping for weapons in Russia to enhance its security from possible military attack by purchasing the S-400 (not S-300) air defense system and Mig 29s.

  2. Seems to me, Israeli P.R. has been caught with their pants down. Just what are they going to do if “O” does meet with President Rouhani @ the U.N.? Will they go into shock, stomp around bleating the shy’s falling, as Netanyahoo has been doing for many years? What is so hard about meeting and listening, which by doing so, a dialog can start. Defusing the tension in the M.E. is what’s sorely needed today, not more bluster of war mongers. Taking it a step further, if such an accord be achieved, what will Netanyahoo and all the neocons do, have epileptic fits, probably. It’s time that the warmongers retire, go tend to their gardens, perhaps compete with each other on who grows the best radishes or beans. At least that way, no innocent civilians are killed.

  3. Marsha Cohen’s essay is typical of the essays I have seen on Iran’s nuclear energy program. The focus in on the opinion of others, not Iranians, on why Iran is making enriched uranium-235 fuel for nuclear power plants.
    Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, has helped to fill this void. His opinion essay on the Washington Post website is titled, “Why Iran seeks constructive engagement”. (9-19-13) In part of his essay, he said:

    “The centrality of identity extends to the case of our peaceful nuclear energy program. To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world. Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved.”

  4. I made an error: “The focus in on” should have been “The focus is on”.

    Bill Buckel

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