Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly: Three Takeaways

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Frank Franklin II / AP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 24, 2013

Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani made his long-awaited debut on the world stage when he delivered his address late Tuesday afternoon before the U.N. General Assembly. Rouhani’s demagogic predecessor, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had cemented his global reputation on the floor of the U.N.’s largest chamber through tirades that, like clockwork, triggered walkouts by Western and Israeli delegations. While the Israelis were predictable no-shows this time, the U.S. was represented by its deputy ambassador to the U.N. — a marked improvement in attendance from previous years.

Rouhani’s speech itself was not memorable oratory. The new Iranian President had to toe a very fine line between sounding the right bullish notes for a domestic audience — as well as for his country’s Ayatullah-led political establishment — and making conciliatory gestures to an international community eager for Tehran to arrest its eight-year drift into isolation. There has been genuine optimism surrounding Rouhani’s new Administration and hope for a mending of ties with Washington, which would also see a loosening of stifling sanctions at home. But it’s too early to tell whether Rouhani’s remarks were the first cautious steps forward toward diplomatic rapprochement. Here are three main takeaways from his speech:

1. There’s No Nuclear Resolution in Sight
Rouhani reiterated the Islamic Republic’s unchanged talking point — uttered many times by Ahmadinejad — that Iran has no interest in pursuing nuclear weapons and that it poses no threat to the world. That’s a position some countries — the U.S. and Israel in particular — regard skeptically, and one can only wonder what new prop hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will produce to illustrate Iranian perfidy when he delivers his own U.N. General Assembly speech on Oct. 1.

(MORE: Forget the Handshake. Here Are Iran President Rouhani’s Real Challenges)

Rouhani said that he hoped his government and Washington “can arrive at a framework to manage our differences,” but offered little indication what concessions both sides would need to make in order to arrive even at such a “framework.” He appeared to dismiss the suspicion placed on Iran’s program as that of “warmongering pressure groups” — a reference, in part, to neo-conservative circles in Washington that have called for military strikes and regime change in Tehran. That may seem like something of a dodge, but it reveals an argument these more “moderate” Iranians may continue to deploy: pointing out that, while Washington fumes, the American public has less interest in hostilities with Iran, much like its considerable opposition to attacking Syria. It’s a big departure from simply lambasting the Great Satan.

The most encouraging sign on the nuclear front is that both Obama and Rouhani have entrusted negotiations to their foremost diplomats — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The latter has spent much of his career in the U.S. and is a serious, much respected negotiator (see my profile of him here). There’s a lot of work ahead before a deal can be reached, but if the current cast can’t get it done, then it’s hard to imagine who else can.

2. The Spirit of the Revolution Be Upon You
The Islamic Republic, as its own diplomats readily admit, is an ideological state, steeped in a three-decade-old blend of Shi‘ite theology and revolutionary, leftist jargon. Though wearing the turban of a cleric, Rouhani wouldn’t have been out of place in an American graduate-student seminar as he trotted out lines on the prevailing dominant “discourse” in international politics, the “hegemonic” ambitions of the global North and the fallacy of “core-periphery” binaries. It’s language dear to the regime and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who struck similar chords in his address a year ago at a gathering of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran. But now that the West has been made aware of the “structural violence” — Rouhani’s term — its sanctions exact on Iranian society, will it have a change of heart? Don’t look to Gramsci for an answer.

3. Rhetoric Matters
While the substance of Rouhani’s speech may not have surprised many, there was evidence of a more conciliatory tone. Criticism of Israel didn’t involve reference to the “Zionist enemy,” let alone any trace of Ahmadinejad’s more reprehensible diatribes on the nature of the Holocaust. More intriguingly, Rouhani repeated throughout his remarks two phrases that had appeared in President Obama’s speech earlier in the day: invoking both the importance of “mutual respect,” while also insisting that the age of “zero-sum games” in geopolitics has come to an end. Obama and Rouhani may have used these two phrases at crossed purposes, especially in the “zero-sum” case — Iran chastising the U.S. for contemplating unilateral action in the Middle East; the U.S. bridling at Iranian support of a Syrian regime that’s grimly fighting to the bitter end. But they are clearly hearing each other. Now, one wonders when they will actually start to talk.

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