Just as the dance of the seven veils was designed to gradually reveal the performer, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been doing the same in a political sense. There has been the release of some political prisoners in his first month in office, the appointment of technocrats to cabinet and of a foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is deeply familiar with the United States. There was also Rouhani's acknowledgment of the Holocaust in yesterday's interview with CNN in New York.
But while Zarif has re-opened dialogue with Washington, Rouhani has not yet allowed himself to meet the US president. One cannot discard the veils too quickly, after all.
The new Iranian president was never going to satisfy everyone (or even anyone) with his speech to the UN. There were no grand announcements, and a familiar refrain about Iran being a paragon of virtue among the non-aligned states. But Rouhani represents a change of style as much as he does a change of substance.
His eagerly awaited speech was seen to be designed for two audiences. A domestic Iranian one (hence the references to hegemons, drones, the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, globalising Western values and need for mutual respect) and an international one (nuclear weapons are not part of Iran's agenda, desire to hear a consistent voice from Washington and to seek a framework to manage their differences).
But there was also a third audience: the Gulf states, who Iran sees as fomenting an anti-Iranian/anti-Shi'a discourse which ensures continued US security support and a policy of containment of Iranian regional ambitions. Variously, Rouhani:
- Differentiated Iran from the Arab monarchies: 'the recent elections in Iran represent...the realisation of democracy consistent with religion' (take that, Saudi Arabia); 'the firm belief of our people...and reliance on the ballot box as the basis of power, public acceptance and legitimacy' (take that, GCC).
- Criticised Gulf states over their Syria policy ('some regional...actors helped to militarise the situation through infusion of arms...and active support of extremist groups).
- Staked Tehran's claim for regional leadership ('the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a regional power, will act responsibly with regard to regional and international security...We defend peace based on democracy and the ballot box everywhere, including in Syria, Bahrain and other countries in the region.')
If Rouhani's visit to the US was about choosing which veil to remove for Washington, it would appear that he has been far more revealing as far as the Gulf States are concerned.