by John Limbert
In his September 20 speech to the UN General Assembly Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani gave a textbook demonstration of the power of appearing to be reasonable. His unstated but clear message was: “They go low, we go high. I am not Donald Trump and do not expect me to operate at his level.”
Appearing reasonable is a very powerful weapon. Beginning in 2009, President Obama used it to great effect against Iran. He acknowledged the difficult history and mistrust between the two states and kept saying that the United States was seeking a “new beginning” with the Islamic Republic, that the U.S. would open its hand if Iran would unclench its fist.
In so doing, Obama caught the Iranians off-guard. He wrong-footed them. He discredited their empty anti-American slogans and offered them what they had always said they wanted: engagement based on mutual respect and (implicit) recognition of their right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. His Iranian New Year’s message of March 2009 was the first time an American president had spoken publicly and respectfully to the “government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Until then, the message of American presidents had always been: “We love the Iranian people and we detest your government.” A symbolic change yes, but very powerful.
For four years the Iranians could not take yes for an answer and had no response to this new approach. With their traditional rhetoric useless, they were, in the recent unfortunate expression of one American analyst, “defanged.” For four years they spluttered, fumed, and stumbled their way through unproductive meetings at which they had nothing to say and avoided speaking to their American counterparts. Encounters degenerated into sterile presentations of extreme positions, and negotiators wasted precious time arguing over the time and place of future meetings.
As a result, the Americans were able to mobilize an unprecedented coalition to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Obama could argue that Iran had not responded to American attempts to change the relationship and had even, in late 2009, reneged on an agreement to remove low-enriched uranium in return for assistance with manufacturing medical isotopes at Tehran University’s aging reactor. The result in June 2010 was a set of new sanctions in UN Security Council Resolution 1929 and coordination among the members of the P5+1 coalition that negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) with the Iranians.
It took four years, a harsh UN resolution, and a 2013 change of administration in Tehran for the Iranians to respond to their adversary’s new reasonableness. When they finally did so, in the spring and summer of 2013, it took only two years to reach an agreement on a nuclear issue that many observers (myself included) thought was too difficult and too complex.
Now positions are reversed. Trump unloaded on Iran in his September 19 speech. His four-paragraph denunciation was as long as his earlier attack on North Korea in the same speech – and longer than previous US presidents’ criticisms of Iran in the same forum. He threw the kitchen sink at Tehran, reciting a long list of grievances including exporting terrorism, bloodshed, and chaos in addition to oppressing its own people.
Rouhani could have responded in kind, trading complaint for complaint. For almost 40 years that has been the traditional Iranian position: recalling American support for the 1953 CIA coup, for the Shah’s brutality, and for Iraq during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, not to mention the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner in the Persian Gulf in 1988.
Rouhani chose a different track. He spoke carefully, with frequent use of e’tedal (moderation), ta’amol (cooperation), and tasamoh (tolerance). He spoke of Iran’s liberating the Jews from their Babylonian captivity and of offering refuge to Armenians fleeing genocide. He pointedly denied accusations that Iran was seeking either to resurrect the “Persian Empire” or to impose Shia domination on the Islamic world. Iran’s best conquerors, he said, are its poets. He mentioned Sa’adi and Rumi, and said that “with [the poet] Hafez we have conquered the world.”
He also struck familiar themes of defending Iranian dignity. He said that Iran would not be the first to pull out of the JCPOA and it would be a shame if others did so. In that case, Iran would react (in some unspecified way). Using his familiar formulation of “win-win” and defending the agreement against both its Iranian and foreign critics he said, “We were not cheated. And we did not cheat anyone.” He avoided direct anti-American rhetoric and explicitly criticizing President Trump. He limited his criticisms to the “new American administration” and its “baseless accusations against Iran.”
Some of Rouhani’s statements may not stand up to fact-checking. The liberation of the Babylonian Jews was a proud moment in Iranian history, but it occurred a very long ago, and in more recent times continued Iranian threats have strengthened the hands of anti-Iranian politicians in Israel. The poets Rumi, Sa’adi, and Hafez have all produced masterpieces of world literature and are jewels in the crown of humanity, but the Iranian religious authorities—particularly in the case of Rumi—have never been happy with their universal messages. Rouhani’s extolling Iran’s human rights record flies in the face of obvious reality. How did he keep a straight face when he spoke of an Iran-e-mehman navaz (hospitable Iran) that has locked up so many foreign visitors?
Still, his basic message of “I am your non-Trump” no doubt resonated with many at the UN. He drew a clear contrast with his American counterpart when he said, “We do not threaten and we do not accept threats.” His tone may not have satisfied those Iranian critics nostalgic for the days of mutual bashing and exchanges of insults, accusations, and threats. They might have preferred him to trade insult for insult and accusation for accusation. But perhaps his defense of Iranian dignity will satisfy those critics.
Rouhani realized that Trump led with his chin. Therefore Rouhani could take a page from Obama’s book: when the other side cannot move beyond its traditional hostile rhetoric and can do nothing except recite its list of old grievances, then appear to be the reasonable party and let the other side discredit itself through its ranting and raving. Just as Trump was speaking to his own domestic political base, Rouhani was speaking to a wider audience that could easily hear the contrast. What many heard was a welcome difference in tone. They did not worry about whether the Iranian president had all his facts straight.
John Limbert is Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He served 34 years in the Foreign Service, including 14 months as a hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. He’s the author of Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History for the US Institute of Peace.