In a little noted speech in New York, President Rohani pledged a moderate foreign policy but also proclaimed his goal to see the Islamic Republic “assume the major role in the global level that our people deserve, a role that no actor in global politics can ever ignore.”
Rohani was speaking to a gathering convened by the Asia Society and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on September 26, during his visit to the United Nations.
He made clear a goal that is little noticed in the West—that the Islamic Republic aspires to restore Iran to the great power status it enjoyed two millennia ago.
But the speech got little notice. Only hours later, Rohani and President Obama exchanged a 15-minute telephone call and that dominated the news for days afterward.
However, the speech that day was the key one of his trip. It was delivered to foreign policy professionals as one think-tank leader to other think-tank leaders. Rohani opened his speech by pointing out that he had headed Iran’s chief foreign policy think-tank, the Center for Strategic Research, for two decades before becoming president.
At the opening of his speech, Rohani tipped his ultimate goal: “I am committed to operating in the framework of moderation, which calls, inter alia, for a balance between realism and the pursuit of the ideals of the Islamic Republic.”
He continued: “In the field of foreign policy, that brings me to discard any extreme approach in the conduct of our relations with other statesÖ. While we will avoid confrontation and antagonism, at the same time, we will actively pursue our larger interests.”
Rohani portrayed Iran as a leader in the rise of the developing countries of the world. “Today’s developing and emerging countries are likely to account for nearly 60 percent of world GDP by 2030, up from around 40 percent in 2000, which would enable them to play a much greater role in global politics.” He did not, however, mention Iran’s declining share of the developing world’s GDP.
The president emphasized in this speech, as he has frequently in speeches at home, that he opposes the zero-sum-game theory that views international competition as ending with a winner and a loser, rather than providing a negotiated result in which all parties win something. This zero-sum approach dominates the thinking in Iran—but Rohani spoke as if Iran’s opponents acted on the zero-sum philosophy. The United States has denounced the zero-sum approach for a century and the international structure it launched after World War II was based on cooperation and interdependence.
But Rohani didn’t see it that way. He saw Washington as trying to pursue the zero-sum game in the face of opposition from much of the rest of the world.
“Interdependence and competitive-cum-cooperative approach, and not enmity, is the order of the day. [The] zero-sum-game and win-lose approach in international relations has already lost ground, as no country could pursue its interests at the expense of the others. Those who may still insist on adopting and advancing such an approach will end up imposing a lose-lose approach on themselves and others,” he said.
Rohani then staked out a role for the Islamic Republic as a major power on a global—not just regional—scale. “Our values are increasingly taking roots. The recent election in Iran, in which close to 75 percent of the eligible voters turned out to vote, showed how what we call religious democracy is maturing. Iran’s millennial culture and civilization, its exceptional Iranian state continuity … enable us to confidently look to the future and aspire to assume the major role in the global level that our people deserve, a role that no actor in global politics can ever ignore.”
While phrased in scholarly terms, the goal laid out is actually a common one heard on the streets every day in Tehran—that, as Iran was a superpower in the past, so should it be a superpower in the future.
While often voiced in Iran, Rohani may have broken new ground by airing that aim on an international platform for the first time.
Rohani again pledged a cooperative foreign policy—and lashed out at unnamed “interest groups” that he said do not want to resolve the nuclear issue, but instead keep it boiling. It was clear he was blaming Zionists—in both the United States and Israel—for the friction over Iran’s nuclear program. He did not concede that the friction might have anything to do with what the Islamic Republic has done.
He said, “We need to counter those interest groups, here in the US and there in the region, whose objective is to keep [the] Iran issue boiling. They seek to further their goal of distracting international attention from issues directly involving themselves and precluding Iran from enhancing its status in the region and diminishing the chance for a negotiated agreement on the Iranian nuclear program and thus increase the chances of a continued Iran-US standoff….
“We consider the efforts by certain capitals aimed at portraying Iran as a threat and undermining Iran’s credibility in the region and in the world are counterproductive and they should cease in the interest of peace and tranquility in the region and beyond.”
Rohani said that the claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons “fluctuates in proportion to the size of the international pressure to stop the settlement activity and end the occupation of the Palestinian lands.” But the bells sounding about Iranian nuclear goals have been loudest in the last few years, as the Palestinian issue has subsided. Rohani seemed to be misstating a frequently heard interpretation that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu talks up the Iranian nuclear issue to distract the world and remove the pressure on him to negotiate with the Palestinians.
Rohani then declared flatly: “We never contemplated the option of acquiring nuclear weapon.” He has said that before. That absolute denial disturbs many who have no doubt that Iran has more than contemplated nuclear weaponry going back to the Iran-Iraq war when the nuclear program was revived with the thought of using nuclear weapons to defeat Saddam Hussein. Some commentators have pointed to Rohani’s flat and unqualified denial as evidence that nothing he says can be trusted.
Rohani concluded by promising the kind of transparency that the major powers, including China and Russia, say is essential to assure the world that Iran is not now contemplating nuclear weapons.
“We are ready to work with 5+1, its members and others with a view to ensuring full transparency surrounding our nuclear program….
“We believe that it is in this appropriate and lawful way that the international community can ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program.
“In such framework, we are also ready to work towards removing any ambiguity and answer any reasonable question about Iran’s nuclear energy program.
“Having done so, let me reiterate that we will never forgo our inherent right to benefit from nuclear energy under any circumstances.”
He then warned the West not to poison the well: “The continuation of pressure, arms twisting, intimidation and extra territorially imposed measures directed against the Iranian people and innocent civilians, trying to prevent them from having access to a whole range of necessities from technology to medicine, from science to food stuff could only poison the atmosphere and undermine the conditions necessary for making progress and weaken our resolve.”
The English translation of the speech is the one provided by Rohani’s office and posted on his presidential website.