'Salesman in Shiite cleric's robe'; who are you, Hassan Rohani?
During his UN address, Iranian president did not attack the Zionists like his predecessor, and those who watched him say he appeared composed, but former Obama advisor says substance was 'very similar to Ahmadinejad’s, but he says it in a much kinder and gentler way'
"In a Shiite cleric’s traditional fine wool robes, Iran’s president, Hassan Rohani, turned himself into a high-speed salesman offering a flurry of speeches, tweets, televised interviews and carefully curated private meetings," The New York Times said this week.
According to the American newspaper, those who watched Rohani the closest during the annual UN General Assembly meeting this week describe him as serious, controlled and single-mindedly focused on message. He seemed intent to convey that he was prepared to take concrete steps to normalize relations with the West, that he was reasonable and that he enjoyed the backing of the street and his country’s religious establishment, the American newspaper said.
"He did not come to New York to negotiate with speeches or throw in the towel and surrender. He came to New York to start negotiations,” Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told The New York Times. “He is very clever, very pragmatic, but he’s also now showing himself to be bold, a risk-taker. He is taking the biggest risk any Iranian has in reaching out to the West.”
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The American newspaper said the contrast with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could not be more stark. Ahmadinejad used his podium at the General Assembly to criticize Israel, deny the Holocaust and dangle the notion that Sept. 11 was the handiwork of Americans. Rohani, in his public speeches, has mentioned Israel only once, calling on it to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty.
However, he has insisted on Iran’s right to build what he says is a civilian nuclear program. At a dinner for about 20 former diplomats and Iran scholars on Tuesday at the One UN New York, a hotel across the street from the United Nations building, one guest recalled that Rohani was bluntly asked: What is Iran doing and why is it doing it?
“His answer was very simple,” said the guest, who could not be named because it was a confidential meeting. “We are enriching. We are doing it because it is our right.”
The only time the usually unflappable Rohani was mildly exercised, the guest told The New York Times, was when he spoke of Israel’s complaints about Iran’s nuclear program. Rohani, he recalled, sharply pointed out that Israel itself had nuclear weapons.
The next morning Rohani called on Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.
The New York Times said such remarks prompted some critics to say that Rohani was simply a camouflaged version of Ahmadinejad, pressing the same aims.
Gary Samore, a former Obama adviser, and now the president of United Against Nuclear Iran, told the newspaper the substance was “very similar to Ahmadinejad’s, but he says it in a much kinder and gentler way.”
“That’s the definition of a charm offensive,” he continued.
Video courtesy of jn1.tv
The New York Times said that to foreigners, Rohani may seem like something of a paradox. He wears the garb of a cleric, though with high-end dress shoes. He prefers to be called Dr. Rohani, for his doctorate in law, rather than by his clerical title. His office has used Twitter to congratulate Iran’s women’s volleyball team and blast excerpts from his address at the General Assembly.
“He’s far from being a traditional Shia cleric,” said M. Hossein Hafezian, who worked with him for nearly 10 years at his Center for Strategic Research in Tehran. He described Rohani as a political “insider” and a moderate, but one who has shunned being called “westernized or liberal, because that would be a curse.”
One diplomat in New York described him as so composed while meeting one of his Western counterparts that he seemed hard to grasp. The diplomat told The New York Times he was struck by the fact that Rohani “didn’t have advisers whispering in his ears the whole time.”
The New York Times said perhaps the most unexpected — and closely guarded — encounter this week was attended by Rohani’s chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian. He attended a breakfast meeting on Tuesday, organized at his request, with about a dozen New York business leaders, most of them retired, from the banking and energy sectors. His message, according to the breakfast organizer, was that Iran is now pro-business and welcomes private investment, if and when sanctions are lifted.
“This was the beginning of exploring if something like that could happen,” the organizer told The New York Times.
But William H. Luers, a retired United States ambassador who now runs an advocacy group called The Iran Project, said Rohani’s greatest challenge would be to convince skeptics in Iran and the United States. “He has to demonstrate this is more than a charm offensive, that he means what he says, that if there’s a response he’s ready to be engaged,” Luers told The New York Times.
The same applies to Obama, he added. “It’s too far along,” Luers said. “We’ve said too much on both sides. There’s too much distrust to just say we had a good conversation.”
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