Much like the attendees themselves, the U.N. General Assembly is generally bloated and full of rhetoric, but this year, what happens in Manhattan during this first full week of fall actually matters. The actions of newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani before the U.N. General Assembly will go a long way, setting new precedent on diplomatic relations between Iran and the West, and ultimately, the United States. Rouhani, a moderate centrist cleric, replaced hardline conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served as president of Iran for more than eight years.
Rouhani’s every move since touching down in New York has been closely watched by the global media and his counterparts at the United Nations.
For his part, Rouhani has been carefully measured in his appearances and interactions with fellow delegates. Earlier this week, he decided to forego a luncheon that would have put him in the same room as President Obama. Speculation among policy makers was that the two leaders, who had never met, may shake hands at the luncheon, helping to reset relations between the two countries.
While the lack of Rouhani’s presence did not go unnoticed in the press, a U.N. official said that Rouhani’s absence at the luncheon was not a surprise, noting that Iran had not RSVPed for the luncheon, and that several countries had declined the invitation.
In stark contrast to his predecessor, who brought a noticeably large entourage and security detail, Rouhani has chosen to travel with a small delegation during his time in New York. The New York Times noted his travel companions were a “sophisticated, Western-savvy team. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, received degrees from American universities and spent most of his adult life in the United States. Together they have raised expectations in a world eager to see Iran play a more constructive role, and the charm offensive is in full swing.”
During his speech before the General Assembly on Tuesday, Rouhani said that Iran could “arrive at a framework to manage our differences regarding diplomacy issues with the United States and the West.
However, he also took the opportunity to rail against sanctions imposed on Iran by the United Nations in response to Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani said the sanctions were only hurting the common man and called the measures “violent,” and maintained that the country’s nuclear program was not for military purposes.
Rouhani pledged that his country will never develop a nuclear weapon as a result of the program.
President Obama acknowledged the remark as “crucial progress” necessary for paving the way for diplomacy between Iran and the West.
Some analysts have regarded Rouhani’s speech as tepid. Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist at the Eurasia Group consulting firm told the Los Angeles Times it was “the minimum reach-out he could have done.”
However, President Obama seemed encouraged by the remarks, noting in a separate speech before the United Nations that the United States would pursue a deal to stop the Islamic Irans pursuit of nuclear weapons.