Report

As Khamenei Denounces ‘Great Satan,’ Rouhani Preaches Openness

At the U.N., Iran's president called for a "new era" of rapprochement with the international community. Is the supreme leader listening?

NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 28 :  President of Iran Hassan Rouhani speaks during the opening of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York on September 28, 2015. (Photo by UN Photo/Cia Pak/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 28 : President of Iran Hassan Rouhani speaks during the opening of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York on September 28, 2015. (Photo by UN Photo/Cia Pak/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In a conciliatory note to the West, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Monday for a “new era” of rapprochement with world powers and the international community. His remarks appeared at odds with recent statements by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has said the Islamic Republic would not begin cooperative talks with Washington on any new issues outside of Iran’s nuclear program.

“The deal can, and should, herald a new era and lead to positive outcomes regarding the establishment of sustainable peace and stability in the region,” Rouhani said in an address to the United Nations General Assembly. “From our point of view, the agreed-upon deal is not the final objective, but a development which can and should be the basis of further achievements to come.”

Since the July signing of the landmark nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers, Iran has been courted by top global business executives looking to break into its big consumer market and untapped energy potential. With the rise of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials have also flirted with the idea of partnering with Tehran in search of regional governments willing to dedicate “boots on the ground” against the Sunni extremist group.

However, doubts about Iran’s willingness to open up further to the West grew this month when Iran’s supreme leader used particularly scathing language to condemn any warming of ties with the United States.

“Some people insist on disguising this Great Satan as the savior angel,” Khamenei said, according to Iran’s Press TV. “[However,] the Iranian nation expelled this Satan [from the country]; we must not allow that when we expelled it through the door, it could return and gain influence [again] through the window.”

“I have not authorized negotiations, and [we] will not hold talks with them,” he added.

The mixed messages between Rouhani and his supreme leader have drawn some confusion from analysts about where the Islamic Republic is headed in its economic and diplomatic relations with the West.

Rouhani’s address Monday “contrasts with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s stance that the nuclear deal is only about the nuclear deal,” Kevin Book, a consultant at ClearView Energy Partners, said in a research note. “We would suggest this may [be] just another instance of ‘good cop, bad cop’: Iran may judge that it worked in the first round of negotiations.”

Earlier this month, Democrats thwarted Republican efforts to pass legislation that would nix the deal in a bruising battle in Congress. With that fight over, the terms of the agreement will move forward over the next six to nine months as Iran dismantles the majority of its centrifuges and makes the Arak heavy-water reactor incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. When the International Atomic Energy Agency certifies Iran’s compliance with the deal, the United States, the U.N. and the European Union will lift sanctions against Iran, unleashing more than $50 billion to the Islamic Republic.

In his speech, Rouhani proposed the establishment of the “United Front Against Extremism and Violence” — an international coalition to fight terrorism. Its purpose, he said, would be to foster dialogue to “prevent the slaughter of innocent people” and the “bombardment of civilians.” He called on the coalition to be created in a binding international document requiring that “no country be allowed to use terrorism for the purpose of intervention in the affairs of other countries.”

For critics of the regime, talk of preventing the “bombardment of civilians” is rich, considering Iran’s role in backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose barrel bombs have killed tens of thousands of civilians. Tehran has also intervened on Baghdad’s behalf with airstrikes and military advisors across Iraq.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in a speech earlier that morning, said that Iran’s future path remains uncertain.

“The Iranian people have a proud history and are filled with extraordinary potential. But chanting ‘Death to America’ does not create jobs or make Iran more secure,” he said. “If Iran chooses a different path, it would be better for the security of the region, good for the Iranian people, and good for the world.”

Despite Rouhani’s talk of bridging divides between Iran and the wider world, he did not shy away from blaming the United States for breeding extremism and terrorism in the Middle East. “We must not forget that the roots of today’s wars, destruction, and terror can be found in the occupation, invasion, and military intervention of yesterday,” he said. “If we did not have the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S.’s unwarranted support for the inhumane actions of the Zionist regime against the oppressed nation of Palestine, today the terrorists would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes.”

Still, he championed the forging of the nuclear deal in July and predicted that Tehran’s relations with the wider world would only improve. “I can now proudly announce that today a new chapter has started in Iran’s relations with the world,” he said. “For the first time, two sides, rather than negotiating peace after war, engaged in dialogue and understanding before the eruption of conflict.”

Photo credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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