The inaugural speech by Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, who addressed the national parliament, or Majlis, in Tehran after being sworn in on August 3, reflects the mandate his landslide victory has given him. To a cheering Majlis, Mr. Rouhani announced that his domestic approach would be one of moderation, together with advances in women’s rights and a reduction in government interference in everyday life, as well as improvements in the economy. Internationally, the President’s position is that if the West wants an “adequate response” from Iran, it should not speak the language of sanctions but that of respect. Secondly, Mr. Rouhani’s foreign minister is Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former ambassador to the United Nations, a veteran of secret bilateral talks with the U.S., and a remarkably accomplished diplomat. Encouragingly, leaders and other representatives of over 50 countries attended the new President’s inauguration; they were the first such to attend the ceremony since 1979. The Obama administration, for its part, stated that if Iran chose to “find a peaceful solution” to “the international community’s concerns” over its nuclear programme, it would find a “willing partner” in the United States.
Nevertheless, the U.S. kept away from the inauguration, and the White House’s curmudgeonly comment evades many key issues. The first is that of U.S. and European Union sanctions against Iran, which have been intensified by U.S. boycotts and threats against countries that still trade with Iran. The Iranian economy has suffered severely, and even western consumers are losing out; for example, U.S. residents are banned from buying the world-famous handmade Persian carpets and rugs. The U.S. seems to be fixated on hostility towards Tehran; the House of Representatives, despite the fact that 131 of its 435 members wrote to Mr. Obama on July 19 urging that he “reinvigorate” nuclear talks with Iran, voted by 400 to 20 on July 31 to toughen sanctions. The vote will seriously retard the prospect of any improvement in Washington-Tehran relations, and puts great pressure on Mr. Obama. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s inflammatory statement, made in the context of Iran, that he is prepared to do anything necessary to defend his country against “a regime that threatens us with renewed annihilation” is equally obstructionist. Mr. Rouhani and his people could be forgiven for thinking that as far as the U.S. and Israel are concerned they can do nothing right, and that the nuclear issue is a smokescreen for their desire for regime change in Tehran. If Mr. Obama intends better, he has to show that clearly, courageously and swiftly.