Listening To Rouhani

68th Session Of The United Nations General Assembly Begins

There are several points (pdf) at which I spluttered. To wit:

The human tragedy in Syria represents a painful example of catastrophic spread of violence and extremism in our region. From the very outset of the crisis and when some regional and international actors helped to militarize the situation through infusion of arms and intelligence into the country and active support of extremist groups, we emphasized that there was no military solution to the Syrian crisis.

One of those regional actors was clearly Iran, protecting its Shiite ally, the murderous Bashir al-Assad. Was Rouhani criticizing some factions in his own country – or bullshitting? I’d say bullshitting. On Syria, he said:

I should underline that illegitimate and ineffective threat to use or the actual use of force will only lead to further exacerbation of violence and crisis in the region.

But of course it was only the threat of US force that prompted the world to get serious about Assad’s chemical weapons.

There were other weirdnesses – “Shia-phobia”? But nonetheless, it seems to me, Rouhani’s critique of the US as a hegemonic power is onto something – not because it is the worst such hegemon in world history. Au contraire. But all hegemonies lead to abuse, and in the case of the US since the end of the Cold War, American unipolar hegemony has led us close to a self-defeat and bankruptcy. Increasingly isolated, engaged in pre-emptive war, America’s wars of invasion and occupation have been morally corrosive failures – and incredibly costly ones at that. The neoconservative vision simply foundered in a world that simply resents the nosy bully – as you could see in the Brazilian president’s speech earlier today. That doesn’t help the US. It doesn’t help our interests. You don’t have to adopt Rouhani’s worldview to see that. We have to live in a more multi-polar world.

And in foreign relations, Rouhani has a point about Iran’s relative moderation. Yes, it exports terror via Hezbollah and Hamas. But it has not launched wars; it has cooperated even with the Bush administration with respect to the Taliban. Gone are the despicable Holocaust denials of Ahmadinejad. And he’s right about double standards. The US is exerting force to insist on Syria’s destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal, even as we send military aid to Israel, which has not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. We have threatened force to prevent Iran getting a nuclear bomb, but we give military aid to Israel, which currently has a break-out capacity of up to 300 nuclear warheads. Is it not reasonable for humankind to look at this double standard and say collectively: WTF?

And is he not within his rights to complain about Israel’s assassinations of scientists?

For what crimes have they been assassinated? The United Nations and the Security Council should answer the question: have the perpetrators been condemned?

The key point of the speech, though, was roughly Ken Pollack’s point. Iran is an advanced society, despite crippling sanctions, and has every right to pursue nuclear power. There is no way to stop this. Indeed, telling a country it cannot develop its scientific and energy expertise this way is abhorrent. The question is whether this is about nuclear weapons. And Rouhani says no – emphatically:

Iran’s nuclear program – and for that matter, that of all other countries – must pursue exclusively peaceful purposes. I declare here, openly and unambiguously, that, notwithstanding the positions of others, this has been, and will always be, the objective of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nuclear weapon and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions. Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.
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The second objective, that is, acceptance of and respect for the implementation of the right to enrichment inside Iran and enjoyment of other related nuclear rights, provides the only path towards achieving the first objective. Nuclear knowledge in Iran has been domesticated now and the nuclear technology, inclusive of enrichment, has already reached industrial scale. It is, therefore, an illusion, and extremely unrealistic, to presume that the peaceful nature of the nuclear program of Iran could be ensured through impeding the program via illegitimate pressures.

It’s interesting he puts the end of any ambiguity about Iran’s nuclear program as a matter of national interest. Presumably he doesn’t just mean his rather corny call to join a “WAVE” against violence and extremism. He means the sanctions. And surely there must be an overlap of interests here. Iran is not denying its nuclear capacity, like Syria did or Saddam once did; it’s broadcasting it. And it is simultaneously insisting it is not for military purposes.

That latter point can surely be tested, verified, examined. And given the awful consequences of military conflict over this, we have a moral obligation to try.

(Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the U.N. General Assembly on September 24, 2013 in New York City. By Brendan McDermid-Pool/Getty Images.)