Upon their arrival in the States in January of 1981, the American embassy workers—who’d been held hostage in Iran for 444 days—were driven to the Thayer Hotel at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As they made their journey—passing thousands of homes and trees swaddled in yellow ribbons and bunting—I put the finishing touches on a welcome home speech. Although they did not attend my school’s assembly, I delivered a speech in front of my junior high’s student body to commemorate their much-anticipated homecoming. We didn’t live far from West Point, and—like the rest of the country—we were entirely captivated by the exuberant, optimistic atmosphere.
I don’t recall much of my speech. I imagine it was fairly patriotic, and I’m certain it lacked subtlety. I do remember feeling that I didn’t quite hit the mark with my reflections. I didn’t understand the complexity of the politics—despite my proclivity for drawing what I thought were terribly clever political cartoons during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
Over three decades later, I am still trying to understand Iran.
This past week it seemed like a daring diplomatic game of musical chairs might allow President Obama and Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, to “accidentally meet” at a luncheon hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. New York Times reporter Mark Landler later referred to the almost meeting as the “handshake that never happened.” After days of intense negotiations, the Iranian diplomatic team concluded that—despite Rouhani’s decidedly more moderate tone than predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—it was “too complicated” for Rouhani to have even a passing encounter with the U.S. leader. He must mollify hardliners at home. A senior U.S. official—who spoke to the NY Times on the condition of anonymity—explained: “[I]t demonstrates that they were the ones who had discomfort with it in terms of dealing with their own complexities back home.”
Indeed. Rouhani’s diplomatic tightrope rope act now seems to include fire walking. Stepping onto white hot coals, in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he ended 8 years of official Holocaust-denial, saying, “…I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews as well as non-Jews is reprehensible and condemnable.” Meir Javedanfar, of the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel, told The Guardian that Rouhani had gone as far he could without infuriating hardliners back home.
Hours after Rouhani’s interview, an Iranian news agency accused CNN of fabricating parts of the interview and misquoting the Iranian president. CNN shot back noting that the Iranian government itself provided Rouhani’s translator. To placate angry conservatives within Iran who would discredit and undermine Rouhani, Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency reported Wednesday that the chief-of-state of Iran’s armed forces, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, announced that Rouhani had accurately portrayed Iran’s revolutionary stand in his U.N. speech early in the week. This statement did not bring throngs of Iranian hardliners to Tehran to jubilantly welcome Rouhani home. It is astonishing that a long overdue admission of historical fact could be hailed as an enormous step forward in Iranian/U.S. relations, but this is the reality of the political landscape in Persia.
All this is set against a backdrop of open suspicion of Rouhani by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who accuses Rouhani—with his measured tone and moderate overtures—of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Karim Sadjadpour, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told reporters last week that Iranian ultra-conservatives probably view Rouhani as “a sheep in wolf’s clothing.” And Israeli politics are further complicated by open disagreement between Israeli president, Shimon Peres, and Prime Minister Netanyahu about how to handle Iran and its entanglements with Syria.
Although Rouhani has staked out a starkly different political posture towards the West than did his inflammatory predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he does so only at the bidding of the real power back home, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani’s restrained speech at the U.N. is an outgrowth of Khamenei’s stated path of “heroic flexibility.” Akbar Ganji, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, explains that although Western reporters have recently cited “heroic flexibility” as a new course for Iran, Khamenei has actually used the term several times during his twenty years in power. Ganji explains, “He is signaling that rapprochement is possible—but not at the price of abandoning Iran’s resistance to Western hegemony.”
Yet, there has been a palpable shift within Iran. Iranian moderates recently welcomed the release of 80 political prisoners—many of whom were arrested following protests against Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009. Prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh—among those freed—told Reuters that she believes Rouhani will eventually free hundreds of political prisoners as he makes good on a promise to ease repressive security measures.
When I communicate with an Iranian American friend who still has family in Iran, there is a certain measured giddiness—like holding your breath while smiling. She doesn’t want to get hopes too high—as they’ve all been burned before—but the hope bubbles up anyway. And President Obama’s ninth inning phone call to Rouhani –during the Iranian president’s trip to the airport—will certainly shore up optimism among liberal Iranians.
The hope I felt for average Iranians upon hearing of Obama’s phone call was not unlike the anticipation I felt on that January day 30 years ago. Subtleties, details and nuance are critical in understanding diplomacy, but the power of expectation gives us the pluck to seek a new way forward.