World News

01.23.14

Iran’s Rouhani Does Davos

The Iranian president told the assembled leaders what they wanted to hear … almost.

It’s fair to say that despite the turban and robes, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani fits right in at Davos, and his speech to the packed auditorium at the World Economic Forum was tailored to his audience like a form-fitting chador: it revealed the shape of his thinking, but none of the details.

His basic message was simple: the world has recognized Iran’s right to have a peaceful nuclear program, including the enrichment of uranium. Because of that, the door is opened to negotiations that will allow Iran not only to rejoin the community of nations, with sanctions lifted, but to become a major player on the regional and world scene.

Rouhani claimed to see “no impediments” in Iran to a final agreement based on the Geneva accords reached with the United States and five other powers in November. He did not address resistance from hardliners in Tehran, nor the need for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to sign off on any final agreement. Rouhani suggested that the only real stumbling blocks would come if his “counterparts” showed “a lack of will.”

When the WEF’s executive chairman Klaus Schwab pressed Rouhani a bit, asking how Iran could reassure other countries that its peaceful nuclear program would not have “dual use” as a weapons program, Rouhani said that’s what the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is all about.  Iran is a signatory, and the NPT was designed, precisely, to allow countries to develop nuclear technology under international supervision so as to reassure the international community.

Rouhani claimed to see “no impediments” in Iran to a final agreement based on the Geneva accords reached with the United States and five other powers in November.

That sounds fine, except that Iran spent decades hiding weapons-related aspects of its nuclear program from international inspectors and was declared in breach of the treaty.

As for Syria, Rouhani repeated platitudes about the need to end the suffering of the people there. “It is a miserable situation and very sad, he said. But the first step toward resolving the crisis must be to “push the terrorists out.” Dictator Bashar Al-Assad, who depends on support from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters allied to it, says exactly the same thing.

Iran was disinvited to the Syria peace talks now stumbling along in Montreux, Switzerland, and he appeared to be angling for another invitation as he talked about the news for all parties to help bring peace there. 

In a very Davosian flourish, Rouhani said Iran wanted to work closely with all the countries in the region and in the world to solve energy problems and build the global economy. He said he wanted to engage on many issues, specifically including “rights of Palestinians” and the Syrian conflict.

“One of the practical pillars of my government is constructive engagement with the world,” Rouhani told the global leaders assembled at Davos. His government, he said, was one of “prudence and hope” that put a premium on stability.

Rouhani said he expected relations with Europe to be normalized, and a new chapter to be opened in relations with the United States, but only if it recognized “Iran’s historical realities,” whatever that means. A guess? Recognition of and apology for the U.S.- engineered coup that restored the Shah to power in 1953. Rouhani also made a nod toward the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab states, but in a way they no doubt found insulting, since they refuse to acknowledge the traditional name of the body of water that separates them. He called them “the Persian Gulf littoral states.”

When Schwab asked Rouhani if he meant he’d work with all countries in the region, Schwab never mentioned Israel by name. Rouhani replied, “All countries that Iran has recognized.” Israel is not among them.

Was the audience frustrated? Not really. On Planet Davos, people are used to obfuscation as communication. Rare is the leader who comes here and speaks in any dialect other than what the French call “langue de bois,” meaning, literally, “wooden language.” And Rouhani has been the star of the show during the first two days of this year’s spectacle.

I thought Matt Damon had a hefty entourage on Wednesday here when he talked about the world’s need for clean water. Then I saw Rouhani come down the hall a couple of minutes later, literally mobbed by photographers tripping over each other to get the best angle. Rouhani’s smile in the midst of the madness was at once beatific and impenetrable.