Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly revealed new discussions between President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Following a series of media appearances, including an appearance on NBC News and an op-ed in the Washington Post, President Rouhani reiterated a desire to begin a new era in American/Iranian relations concerning sanctions and nuclear weapons. While President Obama admitted to being skeptical, he also took strides to possibly open new diplomatic relations between the two countries embroiled in a decades long feud. Both sides deviated from familiar rhetoric, with President Rouhani condemning nuclear weapons and President Obama admitting to rifts and American intervention in Iranian issues, a drastic change in the familiar rhetoric between the leaders of both nations.
Hassan Rouhani was elected President of Iran on June 15 of this year, succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a regular foe of U.S. diplomacy. President Rouhani began separating himself from the radical policies of Ahmadinejad early in his term, acknowledging the atrocities of the Holocaust, and condemning the pursuit of nuclear weapons. The Iranian President did assert Iran’s “right to enrich uranium on its territory within the framework of international law”, but stated, “Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions.” The U.S. has long accused Iran of intending to develop nuclear weapons, and President George W. Bush included Iran in his “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002. President Rouhani’s speech to the General Assembly also condemned the sanctions on his country. He labeled the sanctions as, “violent, pure and simple. Whether called smart or otherwise, unilateral or multilateral, these sanctions violate inalienable human rights.”
When President Obama spoke, his words varied in intentions. He applauded the Iranian President by saying, “We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course...The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.” President Obama then went on to acknowledge the decision to have Secretary of State John Kerry meet with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to further diplomatic discussions. The meeting is said to be taking place on September 26.
Some news outlets have reported that the two presidents never spoke or even shook hands. Some even suggested this proved to be an intentional snub on the part of Iran. What hasn’t received as much attention is the content of President Obama’s speech. He did remain consistent with the previous American presidents, asserting America’s position of power and influence in the Middle East and reassured American commitment to securing its own interests and protecting its allies. “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War. We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.” He did, however, differ from past administrations by discussing the intervening role the United States played in the 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The coup d’etat was a direct rebuttal to the Iranian desire to nationalize their oil industry, which held significant sway for western energy supplies. President Obama suggested that the 1979 Iranian Revolution, where Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was removed and eventually replaced with Shia Ayatollah Khomeini, provided yet another dark chapter in the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Iran. The two countries have had shaky relations ever since, and talk of war has been constant. These talks indicate at least the chance that both countries may be willing to alter the status of their relations.