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President Rouhani traveled to New York and delivered two speeches, had two interviews (one with Fareed Zakaria and one with Christian Amanpour). The UN general meeting wasn’t devoid of good news, Rouhani met with David Cameron and this a great development for Iran. But overall, his tone worried me greatly. He sounded conservative, irritable, and defensive. He had visibly changed from the Rouhani I voted for and support.

You can check his UN speech here. You can enable subtitles. It was the best part of his travel. It contains many strong points. He alludes to President Khatami who was a very open reformist, and a great champion of resolving tensions. He condemns IS and extremism and focuses on nuclear agreement, and how Iran can be a voice of moderation (it’s not, but if people like him get their way, it would) and also the nuclear agreement.

The rest of the journey is worrying though. In the beginning of that speech, Rouhani goes full-on conspiracy theory, saying that these people want to make Islam look bad – and more importantly – make the West attack the region. This makes no sense. Of course everyone knows Rouhani doesn’t believe in that – but why does he say so? He sounds exactly like Iranian conservatives in some parts of that speech.

He sounds even more conservative in his interviews. He visibly uncomfortable talking to Fareed Zakaria. He’s visibly struggling to not diverge far from the regime’s line and not sound like a radical conservative, but that’s an impossible task. He tries to evade questions regarding the journalists in prison, he tries to evade questions regarding the people arrested for the “Happy” video, (while he had defended them openly before), and also struggles on Syria, trying not to diverge from the regime’s acceptable position while not sounding like he is endorsing the genocide and yet not able to do so.

And in his interview with Amanpour he gives up, and he says “no one is in prison in Iran for journalism”. This is exactly what the regime’s far right says, and we shouldn’t make excuses for such remarks. Rouhani will never win conservatives over. He might lose progressives though. These kinds of statement wins him nothing. And you know that he knows, he looks like someone is pulling his teeth as Zakaria and Amanpour pull conservative talking points out of him.

Well, what did he expect? Zakaria and Amanpour are journalists. It’s their job to force you to give them straight answers and leave you no maneuvering bullshit space. And it’s your job, as a politician and a great diplomat, to give answers that don’t get you into trouble and yet doesn’t alienate your supporters either.

Rouhani is a reformist, but in New York he sounded like a reluctant conservative. And this is not how he has sounded this past year, he has been constantly brave, and the lone voice of reformism in his powerless administration. And finally he did not achieve his main goal of reaching an agreement on the nuclear issue as well.

We would never let this go if Ahmadinejad had said it. Of course, reformists are likely to cut Rouhani some slack, but I think they should react negatively, because of Rouhani himself. Because he needs his base to support his ideals, even when he diverges from them, so that he can have something to show to the other side in the behind the scene debates.

This opportunity was entirely a loss for him.

But why? I think three answers are possible:

  1. Rouhani thought he could achieve agreement in this travel and therefore didn’t want to raise any controversy over other issues while in New York. Therefore he acted extra cautious but didn’t achieve his goal either.
  2. Rouhani is under extreme pressure in Iran, not a pressure like he was before but a new kind of pressure (the threat of a coup? The Parliament dissolving his administration?) therefore he has to tone it down a lot.
  3. A mixture of the above.

The future events show which one was true. I’m not worried about Rouhani himself. I know he’s a reformist, and I know he has not deceived Iranians. I’m worried because a conservative Rouhani who minces words and then reluctantly espouses the conservative view is a worried Rouhani, and I’m worried about what he is worried about.

Things look dim.

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An Iranian researcher, writer, and teacher who is an ex-Muslim atheist currently living in one of the theocracies in the world, Iran. Interested in literature, philosophy, and political sciences, especially...