What’s Behind the New Iranian Charm Offensive

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Eyepress / SIPA USA

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks at his first press conference since taking office, at the presidency compound in Tehran, on Aug. 6, 2013.

Usually, it’s hard to tell quite what’s going on with Iran. Usually, the government is divided and its signals to a foreigner mixed, or at least wreathed in what’s been dubbed in the past as “Oriental indirection.” Translated — and anything coming out of Tehran must be translated — Oriental indirection means “listen to what I didn’t say” and “watch my eyes dance as I don’t say it.” It’s a bit like “you get my drift,” except the drift is never evident from a single conversation. The Iranians are more pointillist: It takes a half dozen interviews to begin to fill in a picture, and even then, you never seem to find yourself looking at A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. More like: Hmmm. Could be a cat.

Which is what makes the last week so extraordinary. The Iranians are not merely signaling that they want to talk to Washington about their nuclear program. Given Persian traditions of subtlety, they are standing on their desks, firing Roman candles toward the light fixtures and hollering. Attention must be paid.

President Hassan Rouhani’s op-ed in Thursday’s Washington Post, “Why Iran Seeks Constructive Engagement,” is the least of it.  The new president has been Tweeting like a pundit, too – 26 times in the last 16 hours (at this writing) on his “sole English account.” (Rouhani has 45,000 followers but follows only four Twitter accounts: Three are fellow moderates in the Iranian political firmament. The fourth is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, his boss.)

Political prisoners are being released. Interviews granted to American television. Shoes shined for the big UN General Assembly confab next week. It’s a charm offensive not seen out of the Islamic Republic since then-President Mohammad Khatami (whose account Rouhani follows) reached out to the West with call for a Dialogue Between Civilizations a decade and a half ago. The difference was Khatami did not have the Supreme Leader at his side, and Rouhani clearly appears to. Even before Rouhani’s surprise election in June, Khamenei was signaling that, despite the depth of his own mistrust of the United States, the time was ripe to try to negotiate a way out of the pickle Iran is in over nukes.

The country’s oil exports have been at least halved by the sanctions President Obama fashioned to coerce the mullahs toward greater transparency. And “the system,” as insiders call Iran’s theocracy, relies on a robust flow of dollars to encourage the allegiance of its sycophants (and the tolerance of a generally poor general population). On Tuesday, Khamenei called for “heroic flexibility” in foreign affairs, as clear a signal as Rouhani’s election — Khamenei essentially approves the field of candidates – that the way forward is through engagement with the West, the same West whose mores and history the Leader claims Iran stands in contrast to. The Ahmedinejad Era is over. 

But why be so obvious about it? Close students of Tehran recognize that the most encouraging development in months was the behind-the-scenes role Iran evidently played in the deal to bring Syria’s chemical and biological arsenal under international control, to which Obama alluded. The stars were aligned for that cooperation, what with Iran’s wrenching history with chemical weapons and weariness with Assad.

In terms of public diplomacy, it’s just possible the mullahs don’t realize they’re talking as loudly as they are — simply because they’ve never before been saying the same things, together, at the same time. Khatami’s elected reformists was constantly at war with the appointed mullahs who held the top positions in Iran’s sprawling system of governance, which was the main thing Khatami aimed to reform. Rouhani’s primary aim is transforming Iran’s image with the outside world, a goal that’s easy to rally behind, especially with the rial at a fraction of its value and the government paying its contractors a dime or two on the dollar.

Another, more likely explanation: Iran is letting the world know just how very eager it is to talk because it knows perceptions matter a great deal just now. About ten years ago, Iran quietly made common cause with the West against the Taliban, and for its trouble was tagged by President George W. Bush as one third of the Axis of Evil. It’s not being quiet this time. The more reasonable Tehran seems, the harder it will become for Obama to hold together the impressive but unwieldy coalition that’s enforcing the sanctions. “Be fair,” Rouhani will be able to say. Aren’t we all reasonable people here?