The browser or device you are using is out of date. It has known security flaws and a limited feature set. You will not see all the features of some websites. Please update your browser. A list of the most popular browsers can be found below.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Friday declared his first visit to the United States a success — and it was hard to argue with that assessment, if the measure was the number of important world leaders he met, the speeches he gave and the respectful audience he was given at and on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. But for Tehran, the measure of success of Rouhani's outreach will be whether Iran achieves relief from punishing sanctions — and that will depend on the outcome of the tough, detailed bargaining on its nuclear program that gets under way in Geneva next month.
Still, it's not hard to see why the Iranian president was pleased with his week's work.
"We sought to reconstruct Iran's regional and global standing," Rouhani told a packed New York press conference on Friday. "I believe that our success was greater than our expectations."
True, he did not meet President Barack Obama, but they spoke by phone Friday, Obama said at a White House press briefing, confirming an Iranian tip first reported by Al-Monitor's Laura Rozen. Their two top diplomats, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, also spoke for 30 minutes alone on Thursday, in the most substantive high-level U.S.-Iran encounter since the 1979 revolution. Kerry and Zarif chatted on the sidelines of a ministerial-level meeting between Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — plus Germany). The group has been struggling for years to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.
Rouhani, who had campaigned on a promise to reduce Iran's isolation and give his people an honest accounting of his actions, listed his own meetings. He saw the presidents of France, Austria, Turkey, Lebanon and Sri Lanka; the vice president of Iraq; the prime ministers of Pakistan, Tunisia, Italy and Spain; the foreign minister of Germany; the head of the International Monetary Fund; the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for Syria; and the president of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
In addition, he met with newspaper executives, think-tankers, former senior U.S. officials and Iranian-Americans. His chief of staff met with American business executives and tantalized them with prospects of trade with Iran if and when sanctions are eased. His vice president toured the Islamic art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The reception for Rouhani and his 70-person delegation was certainly a far cry from that faced by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who may have been just as busy but usually in tossing out provocations as he met mostly with journalists and fellow pariah figures such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
Yet even if Rouhani exceeded his own expectations, he did not live up to those of some of his interlocutors. Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, who has long sought to mediate between the U.S. and Iran, was among a number of observers who wished the Iranian leader had done more to reciprocate Obama's conciliatory remarks and gestures at the U.N.
"Everyone expected more from the Iranian president yesterday," Zebari said Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They should have capitalized on this sea of goodwill and positive statement President Obama made" earlier in the day to the General Assembly.
Rouhani, at his press conference, said there had been an "early plan" to arrange a meeting with Obama, and "in principle we did not see any problems." But the Iranians wanted to "ensure that the conclusions would be solid, [and] there was not sufficient time" to prepare, he said. "What matters to us is the results of such meetings." Late Friday, before taking off for Tehran, the Iranian president finally spoke to Obama by phone.
U.S. officials pointed to Rouhani's complicated domestic political position, and suggested that a handshake with Obama was more than the hard-liners in Tehran could bear. Already, more hard-line media outlets such as the Fars News Agency were complaining that Rouhani had been too forward-leaning in acknowledging the Holocaust.
Rouhani insisted several times during the week and in several TV interviews that he has "full authority" to negotiate a resolution of the nuclear dispute. So the real news of the week came when Zarif met Kerry in a session to plan nuclear talks, and they appeared to establish a quick rapport.
Zarif arrived at the end of Rouhani's Thursday question-and-answer session with about 300 think-tankers, journalists and assorted others in a New York hotel ballroom.
"I had a very good and substantive meeting," the foreign minister told the audience in fluent English acquired during his many years living in the United States, beginning as a 15-year-old high school student in San Francisco. "Secretary Kerry was very positive, repeating the views of President Obama and committed to leading the process himself ... We had more than a chat."
Now the action moves to Geneva, where the next meeting of the P5+1 with Iran will be held in mid-October. There, Rouhani said, Iran will present a new proposal to resolve international concerns about its nuclear activities. And it's when substantive talks get under way in Geneva that we may finally learn whether Rouhani is just a more pleasant representative of an Iranian regime unwilling to compromise, or the representative of a new willingness by Iran to limit its nuclear program in return for its desired reintegration into the world economy and diplomatic rehabilitation. If he proves to be the former, the success he recorded this week in New York may turn out to be short-lived.