As Hassan Rouhani makes his second trip to the UN General Assembly, the stakes are high for Iran’s president. The high symbolism and sheer productivity of last year’s visit will be tough to outdo: in 2013, Rouhani led a diplomatic blitz that included an array of polished media interviews, public appearances, and private meetings; the P5+1 negotiations jumped to the ministerial level; Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif held a bilateral meeting; and a historic phone call took place between Rouhani and President Barack Obama. This year there may be less fanfare around old foes breaking new diplomatic ground, but Iran’s trip to New York is no less important, no less challenging, and no less of an opportunity. Six reasons stand out:
1) Iran’s changed tone in the world. It’s no secret that Iran’s trip to New York provides a unique chance for Iranian leaders to make their nation’s case directly to an American audience. Foreign Minister Zarif has already given interviews to over a half dozen media outlets, participated in an on-the-record discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations, and held private meetings with analysts, journalists and others. President Rouhani will likely partake in similar activities upon his arrival. These efforts help improve Iran’s image in the world, and make it more difficult for Tehran’s rivals to portray it as the second coming of Nazi Germany – thereby increasing the political space necessary for successful diplomacy. It has been breathtaking to watch Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu erode Israel’s credibility on Iran-related issues over the past year – all because his government refuses to alter their position as the paradigm shifts before the eyes of the world.
2) A critical juncture for nuclear negotiations. A new round of nuclear negotiations will commence this week, picking up where the two sides left off in Vienna. Bilateral meetings associated with this process have already started – most notably two bilateral meetings between the American and Iranian negotiating teams, as well as Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif’s nearly two-hour long meeting. What was remarkable one year ago has today become routine. Iran will add to this historic progress by also holding bilateral meetings with the other P5+1 members. These meetings will reveal whether the two sides are capable of bringing fresh ideas to the negotiating table and make the swifter progress both sides hope is possible. Media reports indicate that they are showing the creativity necessary to seal the deal. This, in turn, will set the stage for an intense, high-stakes two months of diplomacy that is set to conclude on November 24.
3) Iran and Saudi Arabia Make Nice. The UN provides a unique diplomatic cover for rivals to hash out their differences, and Iran and Saudi Arabia are wisely taking advantage. Foreign Minister Zarif and his Saudi counterpart have already met in New York, and both sides spoke about the priority of improving state ties, saying that a new chapter has opened. Recent overtures that we’ve seen to date – the establishment of a new Iraqi government; news reports about Saudi Arabia reopening its embassy in Baghdad; and an Iranian deputy foreign minister visiting Riyadh – deserve praise, but they’re not enough to calm down the violent sectarianism that has plunged the region into crisis.
President Rouhani should offer to meet King Abdullah or the most senior Saudi official sent to New York. An irrefutable demonstration of high-level buy-in from Iran that has the explicit support of Supreme Leader Khamenei will force Saudi Arabia to choose: do what is necessary to de-escalate regional tensions, or reject Iranian overtures and demonstrate to the world that the problem lies in Riyadh rather than Tehran.
4) High level discussions on regional security. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the linchpins in a long-overdue effort to foster regional solutions for regional security problems. Over the past decade Iran and its neighbors have pursued zero-sum regional security policies that have made everyone less secure. From ISIS to Iraq to Syria, security challenges in the Middle East have forced regional and global powers to sharpen their focus and make tough choices. Rouhani’s team has shifted its approach in an effort to pursue collective security that fosters buy-in and cooperation from states throughout the region. Some countries admit that Iran remains integral to any durable peaceful solutions. Others continue to rebuff cooperation with Tehran for ideological or political reasons. Either way, if the U.S. and Iran won’t talk about these issues, that doesn’t preclude Iran from having bilateral or multilateral discussions with various European and Middle Eastern countries in an effort to clarify and narrow differences.
5) Rouhani and Obama, part two. After last year’s phone call heard around the world, the pressure is on for a repeat performance that matches or surpasses the first act. To that end, Rouhani and Obama should work overtime to facilitate a phone call or handshake before the Iranian delegation returns to Tehran. With nuclear negotiations at a critical point, another headline-grabbing encounter between the two could provide the positive momentum needed to help the two sides get a comprehensive nuclear deal done by November. Make no mistake – it wouldn’t be a disaster if nothing happens on this front, but it would certainly be a disappointment given the unprecedented progress that has been made at the negotiating table since their historic phone call last September. Rouhani and Obama don’t necessarily have to schedule an official meeting. Instead they can choreograph “crossing paths” and shaking hands while at the same meetings – no expectations, no questions from journalists until afterwards.
6) A chance to explain Jason Rezaian’s detention. It has been over two months since Iranian authorities detained Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, without revealing the charges against him or his whereabouts. Concerns about his physical and mental health have only grown over the past eight weeks. Both Rouhani and Zarif are now in the unenviable position of trying to deal with a problem they did not cause. They have tried to respond to questions from Western journalists, but their answers are lacking in substance. This is in part because Iran’s judiciary often decides the fate of detained reporters. But Jason’s detention personifies a larger challenge facing Rouhani’s Iran: following up the charm offensive abroad with tangible political, economic, social and human rights progress for Iranians at home.
Accomplishing all six of these challenging points is not a prerequisite for success, and securing just two or three while in New York would satisfy any honest decision-maker. Last year, Rouhani, Zarif and their colleagues showed they’re up to the challenge. For the sake of peace, Iranians and Americans should hope for a repeat performance.
Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council.