Dissecting Rowhani agenda and narratives at the UNGA

Rowhani’s efforts at the United Nations were anchored in promoting several narratives

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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President Hassan Rowhani’s speech at the 71st session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 71) marks his last in his current term as Iran’s President. This also coincided with President Obama’s last appearance at the UNGA.

It was during one of the earlier UNGA sessions that Obama attempted to meet President Rowhani, which led to the historic phone call. This year, thousands of Iranian-Americans held a rally outside the UN Headquarters in New York protesting Rowhani’s visit.

However, Rowhani’s efforts at the UN were anchored in promoting several narratives, which are linked not only to advancing Iran moderates’ agenda but also the hardliners agenda.

More fundamentally, for several reasons discussed later, after sanctions have been lifted, this year Rowhani’s tone at the UNGA 71 is shifting to the hard-line landscape of Iran’s political spectrum in order to appeal to, and satisfy, the powerful hard-line ruling-politicians of Iran including Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, senior generals of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Quds force, Iran’s ministry of intelligence, and its conservative judiciary branch.

Rowhani’s message at the 71st UNGA is different from his previous ones because Iran has achieved its objectives of having the crippling sanctions lifted

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Agenda and narratives

The agenda and narratives that Rowhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif promoted at the UNGA 71 are as follows:

• Depicting Iran as the frontrunner of fighting against terrorism in the region
• Demonizing Iran’s regional rivals by describing them as contributors to extremism and terrorism
• Blaming the US for not adhering to the terms and parameters of the nuclear deal (aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA)
• Attempting to attract more investors in order to bring more revenues by conducting business deals with the Islamic Republic.

One of the top priorities of the Iranian team at the UNGA was discussing the threat of ISIS and other radical groups. Within this landscape, Iran depicts itself as the victim as well as the forerunner of fighting this threat.

This narrative makes Iran to be an indispensable force for the West in the battle against terrorism. As a result, due to these benefits that Iran claims to be offering the West for fighting terrorism, Tehran will inevitably become the West’s geopolitical and tactical ally.

This will pressure the West to turn a blind eye on Iran’s transgressions and regional military adventurism – such as its role in Syria, Iraq, etc. – as well as Iran’s violations of UN Security Council resolutions and the nuclear deal such as test-firing ballistic missiles and buying advanced weaponry. Iran’s arming, supporting, and financing of Shiite proxy groups and militias will also be ignored.

This narrative will also buttress Iran’s argument that the international community needs to support the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s staunchest ally, in the battle against ISIS and other radical Sunni groups.

Meanwhile while Iran describes itself as the formidable force in fighting terrorism and fundamentalist groups, Rowhani and his technocrat team try to show that Iran’s regional rivals are a crucial reason behind the surge in extremist groups. This narrative will further change the West calculations in leaning toward Iran’s regional rivals.

Nuclear deal and more concessions

The other priority includes blaming the US for not honoring its promises when it comes to the implementation of the nuclear deal. All four rounds of the UN Security Council sanctions have been lifted thanks to the Obama administration’s efforts including giving exemptions to Iran to meet the deadlines.

However, by blaming the US, Iran is also attempting to get more concessions from Washington, send a message to the Iranian people that the US remains untrustworthy, and tell the Iranian people that the US is the reason why they have not seen the fruit of the lifting of sanctions.

In one of his latest speeches, Khamenei pointed out that the US is attempting to “destroy Iran’s economic relationships with other countries.”

He added: “Was it not supposed to be so that the unjust sanctions would be removed and it would have an effect on people’s lives? After six months, is there any tangible effect on the lives of the people? If not for America violating its oaths, would the administration not be able to do many things during this time? ... Of course it has been some years that I have been repeating this about the lack of trust with America, but for some it was hard to accept this reality.”

In addition, Rowhani attempts to attract more trade and business deals for the Islamic Republic. The increased revenues benefit the Supreme Leader and the IRGC because most of the business deals are conducted at state level and Iran’s economy remains mainly a state-controlled economy.

Rowhani’s message at the 71st UNGA is different from his previous ones because Iran has achieved its objectives of having the crippling sanctions lifted. The US and the West have lost their leverages. Rowhani does not need to use a softer tone, or deliver a message that differs from that of Iran’s hardliners.

Now, Rowhnai is tactically shifting his message to resemble that of the hardline spectrum of Iran. After all, he also needs the blessings of the hardliners, particularly Khamenei, in order to increase his odds of winning Iran’s upcoming presidential race.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected], @Dr_Rafizadeh.

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