By Barbara Slavin
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s fourth sojourn to New York during the annual General Assembly summit will be his shortest since taking office – only two days.
Rouhani, who is due to arrive Tuesday and leave Thursday, is seeking a Goldilocks-like happy medium intended to show that he is still relevant but avoiding prolonged international scrutiny and any chance of crossing paths with President Barack Obama despite the landmark nuclear deal their negotiators achieved together last year.
“Had Rouhani not come to the UN at all, people in Iran and outside Iran would have concluded that he is really marginalized,” Haleh Esfandiari, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told this analyst. “On the other hand if he stayed longer in New York, he would face tough questions from the media on Iran’s policy towards Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and on Iran’s human rights violations.”
Rouhani’s first trip to the United Nations as president in 2013 was arguably his most successful. Benefiting from the contrast with his outspoken and controversial predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani charmed diplomats, journalists, think tankers and members of the Iranian-American community by simply sounding reasonable.
WATCH: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 address to the United Nations General Assembly, his first UNGA speech
He capped off the trip by taking an unprecedented phone call from Obama in which Obama congratulated Rouhani on his election and the two discussed the importance of a nuclear agreement and the prospects for better U.S.-Iran relations.
The nuclear deal was concluded in July 2015 and began full implementation in January of this year. But there has been a backlash in both countries, particularly in Iran, where Rouhani has had to defend the deal against complaints that it has not brought Iranians the significant economic progress that Rouhani had promised. Iranians are particularly upset that large Western financial institutions have not yet returned to Iran despite U.S. assurances that these banks will not face new sanctions – a topic that Rouhani and his aides are expected to raise this week.
Gary Sick, a long-time Iran expert at Columbia University, described Rouhani’s visit this year as “perfunctory” and said that reflects in part the achievement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the establishment of near-routine communications between the United States and Iran.
Sick said Rouhani would raise issues of Western and particularly, U.S. compliance with the nuclear agreement because that would resonate in Iranian domestic politics. Sick also said he expects a continuation of the war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia which has included mutual insults of each other’s identity as Muslims.
Anger at Saudi Arabia overshadowed Rouhani’s trip to the United Nations last year after more than 400 Iranians died in a stampede at the hajj. Instead of taking a victory lap on the nuclear deal, Rouhani blasted the Saudis for “incompetence” in managing the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and left New York one day early to deal with the crisis.
Iranian-Saudi relations deteriorated further after the Saudi execution of a prominent Shi’ite sheikh, Nimr al-Nimr, and the Iranian trashing of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Iran banned its citizens from participating in the hajj this year.
Facing his own re-election campaign next May, and embroiled in disputes with the United States and U.S. Persian Gulf allies over Syria and Yemen, Rouhani may see little percentage in tarrying in New York. Decreasing the likelihood of even a chance encounter with Obama, Rouhani is due to address the General Assembly on Thursday while Obama speaks on the opening day, Tuesday.
Suzanne DiMaggio, who directs the U.S.-Iran Initiative at the New America Foundation, said that Obama, who is serving out his final months in office and considers the nuclear deal a major foreign policy legacy “likely would take the opportunity to have a face-to-face with President Rouhani this year” if given the opportunity.
“President Rouhani is in a very different position,” DiMaggio told this analyst. “He’s facing a tough re-election campaign and enormous pressure to deliver the economic benefits promised with the nuclear deal. A simple handshake, let alone a meeting with President Obama may be just too big a risk for him.”
Rouhani is expected to hold bilateral meetings while in New York with heads of state from neighboring countries – although obviously not Saudi Arabia (its King Salman will not be attending) – and a few European leaders, Iranian officials in New York said. He will also meet with Iran scholars and former U.S. officials and hold a press conference before his departure.
Rouhani will delegate the task of resolving remaining hiccups in the nuclear agreement to his Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, who is due to meet with other ministers from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany on the sidelines of the General Assembly on Sept. 22.
Zarif will also fill in for Rouhani at a reception for Iranian-Americans on Sept. 24; in the past, Iranian presidents have hosted these gatherings.
Rouhani and Zarif are arriving in New York from Latin America, where they visited Venezuela, the beleaguered current chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, and Cuba, which recently normalized diplomatic relations with the United States.
One question journalists and others are likely to pose to Rouhani is whether he sees any parallels in the diplomatic normalization Obama engineered between the U.S. and Cuba and prospects for improved relations between the U.S. and Iran.
Progress is “coming less rapidly than we expected or hoped but is beginning to move in that direction,” Sick said.
He said Rouhani’s short stay in New York also reflects the fact that Iran is no longer the hot topic on the U.S. and international stage that it used to be. Instead, after conclusion of the JCPOA, “we are beginning to talk about Iran as a normal player in the Middle East,” Sick said.