Two days after a terror attack in his own country, President Hassan Rouhani will leave Tehran for New York on Monday to attend a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. There he’ll face a Trump administration committed to convincing member states that Iran is the source of all the world’s security threats.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had previously announced that Trump would chair a “special session” of the Security Council on Wednesday to address “Iran’s violations of international law” and to encourage crippling punishments. However, the White House plan has since seemingly changed. According to a new USA Today report, an updated White House memo has outlined a broader focus for the session on “Iran and other countries that violate U.N. decrees against nuclear proliferation.”
If the session were to focus specifically on Iran, protocol would demand that its ambassadors, who don’t sit on the Security Council, be invited to participate. The broadened scope of the meeting releases the Security Council from that requirement, which is likely what the Trump administration was aiming for. Rouhani will be making a speech during that time to the larger session of the General Assembly.
The speech will come just days after a Sept. 22 attack in southwest Iran in which terrorists reportedly dressed in uniforms attacked a military parade killing at least 25, including soldiers and civilians, and injuring 70. So far ISIS and an Arab separatist group with alleged ties to Saudi Arabia have claimed responsibility and an investigation is ensuing. But several Iranian leaders, including Rouhani, have suggested not only their rival Gulf State neighbors including Saudi Arabia, but the U.S. were behind the violence. In a speech Sunday, Rouhani said:
“America wants to cause chaos and unrest in our country so that it can return to this country, but these are unreal fantasies and they will never achieve their goals.
“The small puppet countries in the region are backed by America, and the United States is provoking them and giving them the necessary capabilities.
“The Persian Gulf states are providing monetary, military and political support for these groups,” said Rouhani.
Not everyone in Iran thought it would be good idea for Rouhani to travel to the U.S. in the first place. The country’s hardliners suggested that not showing up would send a stronger message to Trump. As Hossein Shariatmadari, the chief editor of hardline daily Kayhan, wrote on September 9, skipping the session would be “a firm response to the non-stop insults of Trump to Islamic Iran and its noble people.”
Rouhani’s closest adviser, Hesamdin Ashna, responded by saying on September 11: “Kayhan is the oldest and the most senior spokesperson of the small but powerful group of ‘No to diplomacy.’ [They] consider the lack of [Rouhani’s] presence as a firm response, and attending [the UN General Assembly] as ‘in vain.’”
“What I’m saying,” Rouhani emphasized, “is that the lack of presence at UN General Assembly just for being afraid of attending the Security Council summit is wrong.”
But it turns out the hardliners’ concern was not over Rouhani’s presence at Security Council meeting; it was that Rouhani and Trump might speak together at all.
The hardline Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the chairman of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with choosing the next Supreme Leader, has expressed his worries over a possible meeting between Rouhani and Trump.
“Trump has [plans] to meet Mr. Rouhani on the margin of UN General Assembly, this is while the Leader has repeatedly stated that no official is allowed to negotiate with the U.S.,” said Ayatollah Jananti on September 4.
Meanwhile, the reformists, in a rare moment of consensus, agreed with the danger of a chance meeting, opining that the current climate isn’t right for a negotiation between Tehran and Washington.
In this vein, Mohsen Mirdamadi, a senior reformist figure, remarked on September 3: “Negotiation is one of the diplomatic ways for getting results in line with the country’s interests, but we should see whether it would have positive results for our national interests or not.” He added: “Right now, at least [until] after U.S. Congress midterm election, such grounds aren’t prepared. If we negotiate with U.S. now, we then have helped Trump to take advantage of it [in his own interest], in an election which will be evidently won by Democrats.”
While Trump has publicly asked for a meeting with Iran’s president, Rouhani hasn’t accepted. Instead he suggested that the offer cannot not be considered in good faith while the U.S. insists on new crippling sanctions against Iran. “From one side, they try to pressure the people of Iran. On the other side, they send us messages every day through various methods that we should come and negotiate together,” Rouhani said in a televised speech. He added, “[They say] we should negotiate here, we should negotiate there. We want to resolve the issues…. Which one should we believe? Your messages, or your brutal acts? If you want the best for the Iranian people, why are you pressuring them?”
Reformists, however, support Rouhani’s trip to New York in general, arguing that the U.N. setting will help Iran deter an international coalition from taking shape against Tehran.
“[Rouhani] can use this opportunity to express Iran’s logical and wise positions and also doesn’t let a global coalition against Iran to be formed,” stated Mahmoud Sadeghi, an outspoken reformist MP on September 12. “Mr. Rouhani can also use this international tribune for criticizing Trump’s policies.”
Supporters of Rouhani’s decision to attend believe he should hold meetings with world leaders to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal and form an “anti-Trump” coalition.
Reza Nasri, an analyst of international affairs, wrote in the moderate Iran daily on September 18, “Given the unjustified withdrawal of U.S. from the nuclear deal, Iran is in a very good legal, moral and political position this year. As a result, the president’s hands will be much more open in private talks with his counterparts. In other words, the president can use this opportunity to attract public opinion and to consolidate the anti-Trump coalition, and to accelerate the process of negotiations with Europe.”
So it appears that Rouhani is determined to try his utmost to reach a consensus against Trump and keep the JCPOA alive. In line with this policy, Rouhani will likely meet with interested world leaders. According to Bloomberg News, French President Emmanuel Macron and Rouhani are scheduled to hold a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
There can be little doubt over what they intend to discuss.
Rohollah Faghihi is a Tehran-based journalist who has worked for various Iranian media outlets including Entekhab news. He is also a contributor to Al-Monitor.