When Hassan Rouhani takes the stage at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday afternoon, it will be like no speech we've heard from Iran in almost a decade. The recently-elected Iranian president may or may not be a bona fide reformer but his language and gestures mark a profound change from the hostile histrionics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who brought Iran and the West to the brink of outright conflict and provoked a round of sanctions that have isolated and wounded his country's economy.
Mr. Rouhani's speech is being met with extraordinarily high expectations – in good part because he preceded it with a series of important gestures suggesting a bold move toward conciliation with the West, including the release of several dozen political prisoners and a correspondence with U.S. President Barack Obama. The speech will be followed by an unprecedented series of diplomatic meetings between Iran and the United States – including, possibly, a brief, informal meeting between Presidents Obama and Rouhani.
Mr. Rouhani said on Monday that he will use the speech to present "the true face of Iran... a cultured and peace-loving country."
Nobody knows what to expect from this shift in Iranian leadership: Within Iran, reformers are as surprised by Mr. Rouhani's tone and approach as outsiders are. So there is considerable scope for inflated expectations.
The UN speech will therefore be a big deal – but to understand its implications, we need to keep a few limitations and factors in mind, all of which will effect Mr. Rouhani's words and actions:
1. This isn't just the Iranian president speaking.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave his fire-and-brimstone speeches at the United Nations, he shocked the world – but he was, perhaps fortunately, increasingly isolated and powerless within his own country. His rift with the Islamic theocracy's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was deep and public; he also didn't have the support of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which controls much of Iran's military might. And, it was increasingly apparent, he didn't have the backing of a majority of the Iranian people. Mr. Rouhani, however, has the explicit backing of the Supreme Leader – including, it appears, in his diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear showdown and end the sanctions from the West.
"Rouhani can only attempt to have direct talks [with the United States] because the Supreme Leader has agreed to it; otherwise, Rouhani would not be in New York now," Hamid-Reza Taraghi, an Iranian analyst known to have an intimate understanding of the Ayatollah's motives, told The New York Times on Tuesday. "The president and his team enter any talks only under the leader's direct command."
Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American author, summed it up when he told the media last week: "The Iranian leadership is in sync now for the first time in years."
2. Still, he could be undermined from within.
The Revolutionary Guard Corps is a powerful bloc within Iran's divided leadership – it is responsible for Iran's significant contribution to Syria's civil war, and controls swathes of Iran's effective foreign policy as well as its economy – and its leaders have expressed a deep distrust of Mr. Rouhani's overtures.
The second-in-command of the Guards, Hossein Salami, took to Iranian TV last week to make it clear that his corps will not tolerate a wholesale shutdown of the nuclear program (which, Iran insists, is strictly for civilian energy use).
"Heroic flexibility does not include passivity or surrender, Brigadier-General Salami reportedly said . "Our fundamental framework is permanent and it is inflexible and our ideal goals will never be reduced," he added, noting specifically that "the right to have peaceful nuclear energy… cannot be modified."
Indeed, even Secretary of State John Kerry's handshake with his Iranian counterpart Mohamad Javad Zarif this week was denounced by Iranian hardliners – – some of them in influential positions – as an unacceptable move.
"If we wanted to negotiate with the Americans we would not have given so many martyrs," said Ismail Kosari, an Iranian MP who is a member of the Security and Foreign Policy Commmission, denouncing the prospect of talks with a "bloodthirsty" United States: "Only after confiscated assets are given back, the sanctions removed and they have apologized for the crimes they have committed against Iran, then we can investigate if we will enter talks with them or not."
Yet most Iran analysts feel that the Revolutionary Guards have far less ability to scupper the president's ambitions before – in good part because he has the Supreme Leader's imprimatur, but also because Mr. Rouhani's goals may not be as far from the Guards' ambitions as they seem.
3. Don't expect handshakes with Israel.
Hassan Rouhani shocked outsiders early this month by sending greetings to Jews on Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish new year, both in interviews and on Twitter. But he also seemed to return to the old Iranian norm in an interview with NBC, when, asked if he believes the Holocaust is "a myth," said : "I'm not a historian. I'm a politician" – sort of a non-denial denial. He also described Israel as "an occupier and usurper government" and blamed it for the region's instability.
This sounds like scant progress from Mr. Ahmadinejad, who made statements strongly suggestive of Holocaust denial and outright hostility to Israel. However, words and actions are not the same: While he may or may not be capable of reducing Iran's hostility to Israel in practice (including its financing of Hezbollah and Hamas), it's clear that he is not interested in changing the language.
4. The United States is trying to make this work.
Forget the "Axis of Evil." Whether Mr. Rouhani is capable of delivering the goods or not, Washington is going all out in its attempt to bring Tehran into the real world.
President Obama, in his own General Assembly speech on Tuesday morning, made several pointed overtures to Iran. In denouncing the use of chemical weapons by Syria, he cited both the use of gas in the Nazi Holocaust and in the mass slaying of Iranians by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. He praised the Supreme Leader for his recent fatwah against the development of nuclear weapons (one of several such fatwahs issued over the last three decades). He acknowledged Iran's right to pursue a nuclear-energy program. And he described "Iran's genuine commitment to go down a different [diplomatic] path."
On Monday, the U.S. State Department announced that it wishes "to work with Iran should the Rouhani administration choose to engage seriously."
5. The real action is not at the podium.
However we might analyze the rhetorical jabs and lunges, the most important Iranian gestures will be taking place behind closed doors – especially those between Mr. Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Mohamad Javad Zarif. This will be the first meeting in six years between U.S. and Iranian foreign ministers.
"Secretary Kerry welcomes the Foreign Minister's commitment to a substantive response and to his agreement to meeting in the short term with permanent UN Security Council members and Germany coordinated by EU High Representative Ashton to discuss the nuclear program," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told NPR on Tuesday. Other foreign ministers who met with the Iranian president – including the European Union's and Britain's – suggested that these meetings could produce real progress.
"If President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif really mean what they are saying, then there is a chance for us to work together on a whole range of subjects," British foreign minister William Hague told NPR.