Paul Pillar

Rouhani's Message

The op ed from President Hassan Rouhani in the Washington Post should be read carefully on at least four levels.

The first is as one measure of the overall earnestness and seriousness with which the current leadership of Iran is approaching relations with the United States and with the rest of the outside world. Can you find an unreasonable phrase anywhere in the piece? I can't.

The second is as a contrast with what we had become accustomed to hearing under the eight-year tenure of Rouhani's predecessor. The contrast is so sharp one would never guess, if we did not already know it was so, that such pronouncements were coming from successive presidents of the same country, separated not by a coup or revolution but instead by a peaceful election. Rouhani's piece in the Post adds to the numerous other indications over the past several weeks that his election marks a profound change in attitude and approach in Tehran.

Third, Rouhani's statements about what Iran wishes to do on issues of high concern to both it and the United States is consistent with what any dispassionate and well-reasoned analysis would arrive at as necessary to facilitate resolution of these issues. On the nuclear question, any resolution will have to recognize—and provide assurances to the West of being limited to—a “peaceful nuclear energy program.” On the more pressing issue of the Syrian war, Rouhani's statement of his government's “readiness to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition” should be acted upon, both because Iran already is a player, for better or for worse, in the Syrian situation and because working together in addressing the Syrian situation can have beneficial spillover effects in dealing with the nuclear question and other issues.

Fourth, the article contains sage advice about other aspects of the American approach to foreign policy, including on matters that do not directly involve Iran. As with Vladimir Putin's recent missive, Americans ought not to need foreign presidents to point out truths about their own policies and approach toward the world, but they are truths nonetheless. Among Rouhani's observations that are too often forgotten, or never appreciated in the first place, in American discourse is that the world is for the most part not a zero-sum place and that dealing with other nations involves simultaneous competition and cooperation. He correctly observes that a unilateral approach that “glorifies brute force and breeds violence” does not solve shared problems such as terrorism and extremism. He notes that too often “security is pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others, with disastrous consequences.” A glaring example of this in the Middle East that does not directly involve Iran but is condoned by the United States comes readily to mind.

Perhaps the most trenchant of Rouhani's observations is:

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 aptly describes how some foreign policy issues—certainly including the Iranian nuclear issue—get addressed in the United States. One of the biggest deficiencies in American discourse about that issue is that it goes little beyond declarations of how badly we don't want an Iranian bomb, with almost no sense of what we do want other than to hurt Iran and no vision for the future other than, by implication, perpetual hostility.

The new Iranian administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened. The United States would be foolish not to walk through it.

Image: Office of the President of Iran.