Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s Washington Post op-ed, annotated

September 19, 2013

Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani waves after swearing in at the parliament, in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Recently inaugurated President of Iran Hassan Rouhani published an op-ed in The Washington Post today. It's yet another of many gestures of goodwill Rouhani has made toward the United States, with which he advocates seeking detente, since taking office in August. It's also an interesting bit of public diplomacy, revealing as much for what Rouhani says as how he says it -- not to mention what he leaves out.

Below, as we did with Russian President Vladimir Putin's op-ed, is a line-for-line annotation, elaborating at some points and, at others, translating into more candid language. Rouhani's writing is set off in italics and bold; my notes are in plain text.

Three months ago, my platform of “prudence and hope” gained a broad, popular mandate. Iranians embraced my approach to domestic and international affairs because they saw it as long overdue. I’m committed to fulfilling my promises to my people, including my pledge to engage in constructive interaction with the world.

True enough. Rouhani ran on repairing Iran's international standing and on fixing the economy, as well as social reforms. But he clearly sees much of his agenda as hinged on detente with the West.

The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.

Translation: Let's not pretend we're about to become best friends overnight. The United States and Iran disagree on plenty. But Iran's decades of anti-Western resistance aren't working for us anymore, and you in the United States seem to have come around to coexisting with the Islamic Republic instead of toppling it.

The international community faces many challenges in this new world — terrorism, extremism, foreign military interference, drug trafficking, cybercrime and cultural encroachment — all within a framework that has emphasized hard power and the use of brute force.

The inclusion of "cultural encroachment" and "foreign military interference" is a clear nod to Iranian concerns about the West. Maybe this is an earnest concern for Rouhani or maybe it's included to please conservatives back in Tehran. Either way, this is a list of issues that resonates more with Iranian issues than American, though there's certainly overlap.

We must pay attention to the complexities of the issues at hand to solve them. Enter my definition of constructive engagement. In a world where global politics is no longer a zero-sum game, it is — or should be — counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others.

Translation: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is gone from office. So is George W. Bush. Let's talk.

A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable. A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss.

This touches on two of Iran's core complaints about the West, which go back even further than sanctions: a sense that Iran is not respected by the West and a fear that the West seeks the country's Cold War-style destruction. Iran basically wants the United States to acknowledge that the Islamic Republic is a legitimate country that it won't try to overthrow.

Sadly, unilateralism often continues to overshadow constructive approaches. Security is pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others, with disastrous consequences. More than a decade and two wars after 9/11, al-Qaeda and other militant extremists continue to wreak havoc.

Translation: Dear America, please stop invading countries. You are making terrorism worse.

Syria, a jewel of civilization, has become the scene of heartbreaking violence, including chemical weapons attacks, which we strongly condemn.

Iran, like Russia, actively supports Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. So it's significant that Rouhani does not blame the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on Western-backed rebels, which is Russia's position. He doesn't blame it on Assad, either; he's not going to pull the rug out from under his close ally in the Western press. But declining to cover for Assad is significant.

In Iraq, 10 years after the American-led invasion, dozens still lose their lives to violence every day. Afghanistan endures similar, endemic bloodshed.

The unilateral approach, which glorifies brute force and breeds violence, is clearly incapable of solving issues we all face, such as terrorism and extremism. I say all because nobody is immune to extremist-fueled violence, even though it might rage thousands of miles away. Americans woke up to this reality 12 years ago.

He's reiterating that the United States shouldn't attack Middle Eastern countries and that doing so worsens extremism, which also threatens Iran. This is probably as much about convincing the Obama administration not to strike Syria as it is about Iran.

My approach to foreign policy seeks to resolve these issues by addressing their underlying causes. We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart. We must also pay attention to the issue of identity as a key driver of tension in, and beyond, the Middle East.

At their core, the vicious battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are over the nature of those countries’ identities and their consequent roles in our region and the world. The centrality of identity extends to the case of our peaceful nuclear energy program. To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world. Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved.

This is consistent with Iran's long-standing insistence that a nuclear program is a national right. Iran views itself as a great nation and an advanced society. Enriching uranium is a way of proving this to the world, and to itself. Western opposition to Iranian enrichment is thus seen as opposition to Iranian greatness itself. His message to the United States here is that Iran's desire for a nuclear program is peaceful in nature, but it's also deeply ingrained in Iranian identity and thus non-negotiable.

I am committed to confronting our common challenges via a two-pronged approach.

First, we must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain. We must create an atmosphere where peoples of the region can decide their own fates.

This is a little jab at the United States. Many Americans might not immediately see what Rouhani is doing by placing Syria and Bahrain side-by-side. While the two countries' conflicts are very, very different, they also have some similarities. Bahrain, a close U.S. military ally, has seen pro-democracy protests since 2011. But the authoritarian government, in part with implicit U.S. support, has cracked down repeatedly on protesters. By mentioning Bahrain alongside Syria, perhaps Rouhani is saying that, if Iran is part of the problem of oppressed Middle East democracy movements, then so is the United States.

As part of this, I announce my government’s readiness to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.

This is the one major policy announcement in the op-ed. But it's also status quo; Iran has long advocated talks between the Assad regime and the rebels. In action, though, Tehran has given Assad such overwhelming military support that it's seemed single-mindedly focused on helping him to win the war outright. Outside the confines of this op-ed, it's not clear that Iran is changing policy on Syria.

Second, we must address the broader, overarching injustices and rivalries that fuel violence and tensions. A key aspect of my commitment to constructive interaction entails a sincere effort to engage with neighbors and other nations to identify and secure win-win solutions.

We and our international counterparts have spent a lot of time — perhaps too much time — discussing what we don’t want rather than what we do want. This is not unique to Iran’s international relations. In a climate where much of foreign policy is a direct function of domestic politics, focusing on what one doesn’t want is an easy way out of difficult conundrums for many world leaders. Expressing what one does want requires more courage.

This section is very promising. Rouhani is subtly drawing attention to the fact that both American and Iranian politics include hard-liners who oppose detente, and that for the two countries to end decades of enmity would require not just international diplomacy but domestic political change as well. It's good news that Rouhani sees this, for two reasons. First, he will have to take on the hard-liners in his own government to see detente through. And, second, he will have to be prepared for the possibility that some members of the U.S. government may attempt to undermine peace; it's helpful if he's aware that such people don't necessarily act on behalf of the entire United States.

After 10 years of back-and-forth, what all sides don’t want in relation to our nuclear file is clear. The same dynamic is evident in the rival approaches to Syria.

Translation: Yes, we see the red lines.

This approach can be useful for efforts to prevent cold conflicts from turning hot. But to move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher. Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better. To do that, we all need to muster the courage to start conveying what we want — clearly, concisely and sincerely — and to back it up with the political will to take necessary action. This is the essence of my approach to constructive interaction.

Translation: I don't think it's enough for us to sit around and hope that a breakthrough will just happen on its own, or that the United States will hand us everything we want on a silver platter. We're ready to start making compromises and concessions, but you guys have to do the same. And that means clarifying what we will and won't accept.

President Obama made a first step on this when he sent a letter to Rouhani clarifying that the United States is ready to cut a nuclear deal with Tehran so long as it can certify any enrichment is purely peaceful -- which implies that the United States will accept a peaceful program.

As I depart for New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, I urge my counterparts to seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election. I urge them to make the most of the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given me and to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue. Most of all, I urge them to look beyond the pines and be brave enough to tell me what they see — if not for their national interests, then for the sake of their legacies, and our children and future generations.

Translation: This is your big chance, America. Better take it while you can.

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Max Fisher | September 19, 2013