Why Obama and Rowhani didn’t bump into each other

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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The exchange of letters and pleasantries between United States President Barack Obama and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani, raised hope and optimism in the West, and in the region, that the United Nations General Assembly might mark a fresh, constructive, new era in the U.S.-Iran nuclear standoff.

Many scholars, politicians and policy analysts have pointed out that there is dire need in the Middle East for a dialogue between the West and Tehran. Mainly because Iran’s nuclear ambition has become one of the most fundamental regional fault lines and challenges of recent years.

In what may have been the most widely anticipated speeches and encounters, the most significant geopolitical handshake of our generation, between the presidents of the United States and Iran. It turned out that Hassan Rowhani and Barack Obama did not bump into each other in the corridors of the United Nations or at a heads of state luncheon. This has resulted in the disappointment of some policy analysts and politicians who sought a more concrete and tangible sign of high-level diplomatic relations and U.S.-Iran rapprochement.

Presidents Obama and Rowhani delivered their speeches. Going beyond the exchange of nice words and pleasantries between Rowhani and Obama, the crucial issue comes down to whether the substance of their speeches will mend the geopolitical and ideological rift between the United States (and the West) and Iran.

Without doubt, the style and tone of newly elected President Rowhani has shifted base with his speeches at the United Nations General Assembly, specifically in comparison with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad— a hardliner who became known for his confrontational, rambling and incendiary speeches.

Rowhani maintained the same foreign and domestic policies of the supreme leader and previous Iranian presidents

Majid Rafizadeh

While Ahmadinejad used his General Assembly appearances to antagonize the West, question the Holocaust, call 9/11 an inside job carried out by the CIA and rally against Israel, Rowhani has aimed to emulate other Iranian presidents, such as former president Mohammad Khatami and Rafsanjani, in calling for greater international dialogue.

Rowhani utilized a milder tone, less incendiary and confrontational language; he did not primarily mention the name of Israel, speak on 9/11, or call Western nations imperialists and colonialists.

Nevertheless, a shortcoming that arises with political analysis is that some policy analysts, scholars, and politicians are primarily comparing Rowhani with his predecessor, Ahmadinejad. This analogy is misleading because comparing Rowhani— or any other Iranian president— with a controversial political figure like Ahmadinejad, projects a reformist picture of Rowhani, situating him in the moderate spectrum of politics.

Classic Iranian president speech: substance is crucial, not style

In order to accurately analyze the prospective Iran-U.S. rapprochement, to look beyond the surface of Rowhani’s and Obama’s speeches, one should read between the lines of their language to examine Iran and the American stance on Tehran’s nuclear defiance, Iran’s support of the Syrian regime and the Iranian ruling cleric and Ayatollah’s ideology of the world.

Beyond the shift in tone and style, Rowhani delivered a classic speech, which has been given by every Iranian president since 1979 when the Islamic Republic was established. Rowhani did not offer any fundamental shift in Iran’s foreign policy towards major issues like Tehran’s stance on its nuclear program or the economic, political, financial, intelligence, advisory, and military support for Assad’s regime in Syria.

President Rowhani pointed out that he is open to dialogue regarding Iran’s nuclear enrichment. This development is not a groundbreaking shift though. All former Iranian administrations– including that of Ahmadinejad— have maintained the same line. The crucial phenomenon (which many have been waiting for) was to see whether President Rowhani will declare that Iran is going to slow down or halt its spinning of the centrifuges for the current moment until they reach a deal with the international community.

Instead, Rowhani, like every other Iranian president, emphasized that the Islamic Republic of Iran has the absolute and inalienable right to pursue a nuclear program.

Tehran is now enriching uranium at 20% purity, considered to be a relatively technically short step from obtaining weapons-grade material and arms. Many see this as just another strategy to buy time and become a nuclear power.

More precisely, Rowhani suggested that the only approach forward is allowing Iran to keep the centrifuges spinning, he stated: “acceptance of and respect for the implementation of the right to enrichment inside Iran and enjoyment of other related nuclear rights, provides the only path toward.”

Furthermore, although Rowhani did not question the Holocaust and made no direct threats to Israel or other regional countries, he implicitly attacked other countries who oppose the policies and ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran, by calling them “warmongers.”

In addition, Iran’s ideological and religious stance on the world, and the region, has not shifted. Rowhani’s speech clearly indicated that he holds the same stance as the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s intelligence, former Iranian political establishments and presidents. By preaching to the West, he condemned the current international political system and depicted a picture of the world as led by Western conceptualization.

Although many may have been looking forward to a breakthrough and diplomatic headway between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and though many were eager to see a fundamental change in Tehran’s foreign and domestic policies introduced by Rowhani’s first appearance at the United Nations General assembly, he maintained the same foreign and domestic policies of the supreme leader and previous Iranian presidents.

All in all, President Rowhani retreated to the same policies of his predecessors. However, he delivered those policies to his audience with milder language and in a milder tone.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American scholar and political scientist, is president of the International American Council based in Washington DC. He is on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Formerly, he served as a scholar at Oxford University ambassador, served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, and conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and. He can be reached at [email protected].

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