Would you expect a presidential candidate speaking in Texas to focus on the same part of his platform as when he visited Massachusetts? Probably not – at least not if the candidate in question knew what he was doing. It doesn’t surprise us that American politicians craft their messages to relate to the audience at hand; at this point, we even expect a degree of personalization from them. In the end, all politics are local politics. So why do we forget this very simple fact the instant politics go international?
This August, the charming, moderate Hassan Rouhani replaced the infamous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, and we found ourselves in a moment of fragile possibility. Especially after the unprecedented openness shown by both Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani at the UN General Assembly in September, the world is hoping to see great progress in U.S.-Iranian relations – and with it, a stabilization of Iran’s nuclear program. However, if these negotiations are to succeed, both nations will need to remember that their representatives aren’t just negotiating with each other – they’re negotiating with their constituents at home as well.
Both President Obama and President Rouhani have their work cut out for them. They need to sell an American-Iranian agreement to their general populations, to their conservative hardliners, and to each other – all at the same time. Each will need to maintain a difficult balance, and we should expect to see it reflected in their actions and their rhetoric.
On September 24, just a few hours before Mr. Rouhani took his turn at the podium of the UN General Assembly, President Obama laid out two issues on which America will focus its efforts in the Middle East: the Iranian nuclear program, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He built upon the recent gestures made by both President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons (to further complicate the political situation, no Iranian president will act without the backing of the Supreme Leader). Mr. Obama approached the issue cautiously, saying, “The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”
One reason the roadblocks may prove too great is Mr. Obama’s own domestic political situation and the commitments he is simultaneously making to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not amused by the recent turn of events. In his own UN speech, he called Rouhani, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community,” and urged Western leaders not to enter into discussions or to ease sanctions. Mr. Obama assured Mr. Netanyahu that, “I have made it clear… the United States will never compromise our commitment” to Israel, but for anyone listening, it was hard to ignore how blatantly the two allies disagreed that day. As President Obama moves towards negotiations with Iran, he’s going to have a difficult time balancing his overtures against the need to reassure Israel and its many supporters here at home.
Then there’s Mr. Rouhani himself. At first glance, he’s the perfect moderate. Nicknamed the “Diplomat Sheikh,” Rouhani is a cleric who appeals to Iran’s religious factions while also advocating women’s rights. His own UN speech called for both recognition of Iran’s right to peacefully enrich uranium and for increased transparency of their nuclear program. And yet, if you sit down to read the actual words of his much-touted address, he certainly isn’t against playing hardball. Although he declared that “peace is within reach,” his call to diplomacy was not a warm one: “Commensurate with the political will of the leadership in the United States and hoping that they will refrain from following the short-sighted interest of warmongering pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences.” He added that, “those who harp on the so-called threat of Iran are… a threat against international peace and security themselves.” Not surprisingly, some were disappointed in his prose (after all, no one enjoys being called a warmonger). The Guardian wrote that “the accusatory tone” of his speech “dampen[ed] expectations.” At the UN, Rouhani turned down a one-on-one meeting with President Obama, and the press was denied its much-anticipated photo of a handshake.
Although we shouldn’t let Mr. Rouhani off the hook, nor excuse Iran’s human rights violations, we do need to remember that he isn’t only speaking to us. When he returned to Iran from New York, he was cheered by hundreds for the advances he had made with the West. However, he was also criticized by the chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Even as some cheered, others shouted, “Death to America,” and pelted his car with eggs, stones and shoes – just for taking a 15 minute phone call from an American president. In response to the same phone call, the Supreme Leader Khamenei declared, “The American government is untrustworthy, supercilious and unreasonable,” and asked Rouhani “to carefully consider everything before taking any steps.” Just as Mr. Obama chose not to intervene in Syria without the support of the American people, Mr. Rouhani cannot act without public support – and, even more importantly, without the support of the Ayatollah. With every overture Rouhani makes to the United States, he’ll need to counter with a show of strength for his hardliners. For better or for worse, a little anti-American rhetoric helps the medicine go down.
All of this excitement and controversy over Iran has culminated in a missed handshake and a 15-minute phone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani. It may not seem like a lot, and Iran and America may not be ready to be in the same room together, but that phone call was an unprecedented step forward – the first direct communication between their leaders in 34 years. As we continue tentatively down the path towards partial reconciliation, both sides should expect to hear a lot that they don’t like. We should expect our leaders to pass on handshakes, even to insult each other. After all, our own leaders often try to sell at home what sells abroad – only to find that Americans just aren’t buying. How often does our own president make a statement only to have congressional Republicans decry it minutes later? In the coming months, Rouhani will have to walk a delicate balance between a political hardline and what may be a genuine desire to negotiate. As Americans, all we can do is take every speech with a grain of salt – and stop to consider the audience. Maybe it’s time we hold foreign political leaders to the same standards we’re forced to apply to Congress – that is to say, low ones.