“Surrender.” That’s the only option Iranian President Hassan Rouhani offered America during his (now forgotten) virtual address to the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last month. Based on his bombastic rhetoric, Rouhani clearly expects Washington to play the part of supplicant no matter who wins next month’s US presidential election. Candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden should take note.
Styled the “diplomat sheikh” years ago by his supporters and as a “moderate” by a sympathetic Western press, Rouhani’s last speech to the UNGA was neither temperate nor tactful. However, it did contain useful insights that can disabuse foreign policy experts on both sides of the isle that Rouhani represents the best chance for an agreement with Tehran.
Building on his 2019 address where he used the podium to issue threats against the international community, Rouhani again proved in 2020 that he can dabble in falsehoods and invectives just as easily as his bombastic predecessor.
With the possible exception of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, there is no other Iranian political figure whose legacy is so intertwined with that of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as Rouhani.
Due to increased domestic expectations, an overselling of the JCPOA, and the effectiveness of renewed American sanctions, Rouhani’s political stock has fallen considerably. As such, any attack on the deal has become attack on Rouhani’s brand.
This attachment to the JCPOA is precisely why Rouhani used his UNGA address to thank members of the international community who rejected Washington’s call to “snapback” sanctions on Iran.
A pawn of Russia and China
Not only did Rouhani chalk this rejection up as a win at home, but he specifically acknowledged the role of “Russia and China” in delivering the Trump administration a diplomatic defeat in New York.
Rouhani’s invocation of America’s rivals amid the era of “great power competition” cannot be understated. It is a measure of Tehran’s increasing comfortability with being Moscow and Beijing’s pawn so long as the target remains Washington.
In his speech, Rouhani championed Iran as a pillar of “democracy,” alleging that the term represents the “sovereign right of a nation.” But it’s hard to reconcile this statement with the fact that the Islamic Republic has brutally repressed protests at home for years. In November 2019, Iran’s Supreme Leader reportedly ordered security officials to “do whatever it takes” to put down protests beginning earlier that month. According to Reuters, 1,500 people were killed. Rouhani did not dissent.
Elsewhere in his address, Rouhani’s schadenfreude was on full display as he made the gross analogy between Iran under sanctions to the suffering of George Floyd, which had touched-off the Black Lives Matter movement. “We instantly recognize the feet kneeling on the neck as the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations,” proclaimed Rouhani.
But Rouhani’s alleged indignation is a lesson in hypocrisy and selective outrage. It is also testament to a well-established tactic by authoritarians to deflect pressure.
Days before Rouhani gave his virtual address, the clerical regime brutally executed Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari after accusing him of murdering a security guard during an anti-government protest. Afkari’s family insists that he had been tortured into delivering a “false confession” – something all too common in the Islamic Republic. Despite spurious claims by the regime, there was no proof of the murder.
Further indicative of Iranian attention to US domestic debates, Rouhani invoked the 1953 coup against former Iranian Prime Minster Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh as evidence that America is a “terrorist and interventionist outsider.”
The increased references to 1953 in US foreign policy debates about Iran has actually spurred the talking point in Tehran. Oddly enough, it has not come from Iranian leftists or nationalists – both of whom were purged from politics after the 1979 Revolution – but rather the hardline establishment including Iran’s Supreme Leader. While academic debates continue over archival material and the net impact of American involvement, one fact cannot be ignored. Prominent members of the clergy actually supported the monarchy and some were involved in the coup, a fact that certainly complicates the talking points of Iran’s anti-American clerics today.
But perhaps one of the greatest mistruths paraded by Rouhani came in the form of projection, where he insisted it was the US committing “occupation, war and aggression” in various outposts throughout the Middle East. Ironically, almost all the places Rouhani cited were areas Iran had been engaging in destructive proxy wars in its attempt to “export” its Islamic Revolution.
Rouhani characterizes such intervention as mere backing for resistance movements, citing Iranian support of the “people of Iraq” and more generally, of the “democratic achievements of the Iraqi people.”
But such a portrayal is fatuous charade. Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, responsible for much of the bloodshed and chaos that Rouhani attempts to pin on the United States. There is a reason the people of Lebanon have so heavily criticized Lebanese Hezbollah following the Beirut explosion – they thoroughly understand the metastasizing of Iran’s violent ambitions beyond Tehran and have seen the political poison that Iran routinely injects into the Lebanese government.
Rouhani also extolled the former Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds-Force (IRGC-QF), Qassem Soleimani, referring to him as “our assassinated hero” who “was the champion of the fight against violent extremism.” Rouhani’s revisionist account of the IRGC-QF leader is a poor attempt to mask the heinous crimes and bloodshed for which Soleimani was responsible as the chief mastermind behind Iran’s overreach in the Middle East.
While there is much more fiction from Rouhani’s final UNGA address to debunk, the above sampling should be sufficient to shed light on how Rouhani sees America. Whichever administration assumes control over US foreign policy next year let it be known that the notion of a “good faith” or “moderate” partner in the Islamic Republic’s political apparatus is entirely illusory. This premise was incorrect when the JCPOA was first agreed to in 2015, and remains incorrect today.
History has shown that the Islamic Republic will negotiate over key national security objectives only when there is no alternative. In this regard, despite Rouhani calling on America to take the knee, if Washington’s maximum pressure policy intensifies, Tehran will need to contemplate capitulation.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) where he focuses on Iranian political and security issues. Erielle Davidson is a senior policy analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) where she covers Iran and Israel.
Originally published in Al Arabiya