Hassan Rouhani Op-Ed: What Iran's President Really Meant

The latest fad for countries who quarrel with the U.S. is for their leaders to pen op-eds in American newspapers. After Vladimir Putin urged President Obama not to attack Syria in the NY Times, new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made his case for dialogue and diplomacy in the Washington Post this week.

Rather than a sincere appeal for mutual understanding, however, this op-ed is merely rhetoric.

It's clear President Obama has to engage with Iran in order for the U.S. to establish stability in the Middle East. However, reading between the lines of Rouhani’s article gives insight into what engagement Tehran would like to see take place.

Here are some excerpts:

“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.”

“battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are over the nature of those countries’ identities and their consequent roles in our region and the world.”

"… nuclear power ... 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."

“... we must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain ..."

“I announce my government’s readiness to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.”

“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. This approach can be useful for efforts to prevent cold conflicts from turning hot.” 

These quotes demonstrate a regime now feeling more confident than it was a few years ago; no longer a regime fearing air strikes, but one recognizing its huge influence in the region and seeing the U.S. more reluctant to intervene. Iran regards itself to be a power to be engaged with at the negotiating table over future events in the region.

Yet, despite saying that it wants to be a negotiating party in the Syrian crisis, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard is actively arming and training Assad’s forces. It was Iran who gave the Assad regime the blueprint for crushing the uprising, after having crushed its own 2009 Green movement. 

President Rouhani talks of recognizing the plurality of identities throughout the Middle East, yet in Bahrain, his regime usurps these ethnic grievances towards Iran’s own regional interests. Bahrain is comprised of Shite Muslims (70%) but ruled by a Sunni minority. Iran has the influential capacity to ferment unrest, putting this U.S.-friendly regime (housing the U.S.’s fifth naval fleet) into jeopardy.

Thus, Rouhani's op-ed is not so much an appeal that his regime wishes to be engaged with, but a strong suggestion that President Obama should engage with him due to Iran's weight and influence in the region.