Just a few short days after being sworn in, new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held a news conference today in Tehran. After eight years of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in office, Iranians and the world are watching closely for any sign that Rouhani might bring some sort of change to the country's internal restrictions and its foreign policy. It was certainly a remarkable tonal departure from Ahmadinejad, with lots of talk about compromising with the West.
Actions speak louder than words, and so far we mostly just have the latter to go on, so it's entirely possible that Rouhani's record won't match his rhetoric. He could also be stymied from internal opposition, especially from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Still, there were some tentatively promising signs in the news conference. Here are a few takeaways from what he did, and didn't, say:
1. Reiterates cautious willingness to engage with U.S.
Rouhani has argued for months that the United States and Iran could resolve their differences peacefully, and he returned to this theme at his news conference, suggesting that a deal is possible if both sides show good will. But he was careful not to appear too eager to engage directly with the United States, something that has proven internally costly for past Iranian leaders who risked too much on talks that never went anywhere. When asked if he would try to meet President Obama at the opening of the annual United Nations General Assembly session in New York, Rouhani ducked the question by saying he wasn't sure yet if he would attend, allowing him to keep his options open without baiting hard-liners who oppose direct talks.
2. The bad news: Wants the U.S. to make the first big move by lifting sanctions
The dilemma in any reconciliation process is that, often, one side has to make the first concession. But in a conflict like this one, where each side has felt previously burned by the other, that can be a major sticking point. So it's unsurprising but not encouraging to see Rouhani set a pretty high bar for "first steps": he said he wants the United States to demonstrate its good faith by lifting sanctions. From Rouhani's perspective, this makes sense because Washington can always reimpose sanctions, whereas any cuts that Rouhani makes to Iran's nuclear program will be much tougher to reverse if the process fails. Still, this seems unlikely to happen, in part because Obama is probably not going to want to take the enormous foreign policy and domestic political risk of lifting sanctions, given that he can't guarantee that Rouhani will both want and be able to reciprocate.
3. The good news: Understands that U.S. foreign policy-making isn't monolithic
Just as in Washington, Tehran has some officials and lawmakers who want to move toward a resolution as well as hard-liners who oppose any detente. Still, it's always easy to mistake a foreign government as monolithic, which can lead to mixed messages that undermine the peace-seekers. Rouhani made clear that he understands that Obama is not directly responsible for every U.S. foreign policy step, for example the recent congressional legislation increasing sanctions, which passed the House the very same week that Rouhani was inaugurated. References to a "war lobby" and "mixed messages" allow Rouhani to emphasize to his own government that it shouldn't let U.S. hard-liners undermine detente -- assuming that Rouhani himself understands that Obama isn't able to control, or often even guide, Congress.
4. Status quo on Syria
Rouhani gave no indication that he plans to change policy on Syria, which has been one of intervening on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. That's hardly surprising, but a reminder that this is still Khamenei's Iran; the supreme leader is thought to lead on major foreign policy issues. It's also a discouraging reminder that world leaders -- including Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- have largely failed to find a way out of this increasingly horrific war.
5. Good and bad signs on gender issues
Iran's gender gap is one of the widest in the world, and Rouhani's base seems to expect him to do something to ease restrictions on the country's 40 million women. They got an early discouraging sign when he released his cabinet picks, which include no women (Ahmadinejad's cabinet had one). Reporters challenged him on this, and he made the right noises about systemic inequality going deeper than anything a cabinet pick would fix and pledged to hire more women.
6. Good and bad signs on political and civil rights
Rouhani may be presenting himself as a potential reformer, but he's still very much of the system. There were reminders of both when foreign and Iranian reporters raised, gently, issues about the country's human rights situation, which has remained especially dire since the 2009 protests. He let reformist media ask questions -- yes, there are reformists working within the system in Tehran -- but he also urged national unity, which sounds a bit like a justification for continuing oppressive policies.
I thought this tweet, in response to Rouhani issuing some boilerplate anti-imperialist rhetoric, got to the core issue pretty well: Khamenei, the unelected supreme leader, is still the ultimate authority in Iran, particularly over issues that the world is hoping Rouhani can resolve: