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Rouhani's UN address reflects Iran's growing intransigence

Hassan Rouhani speaking to the United Nations General Assembly from a lectern
Rouhani addressing the 2019 UN General Assembly. Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at world leaders in a strident address from the floor of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Wednesday, underscoring the Islamic Republic's increasing isolation on the international stage.

The big picture: Since May 2019, the world has seen Iran violate nuclear commitments and attack oil installations and commercial shipping critical to the international economy. France, Germany, and the U.K. have joined Washington in pointing a finger at Iran after the recent strikes on Saudi oil facilities, a sign that the trans-Atlantic community may be uniting against Tehran.

Driving the news: “Iran’s patience has limits,” Rouhani threatened in his UNGA speech.

  • Rouhani likened the U.S. to a bully, called Europe powerless and claimed the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are traitors to their geography.
  • He drew on an old Arabic maxim — “first the neighbor, then the house” — to suggest that Iran's neighbors would ultimately be abandoned by the U.S. and should not seek external guarantees of security.

Between the lines: Previously dubbed the “diplomatic sheikh,” Rouhani is now taking a tougher line, downplaying the value of even a photo op with President Trump.

  • For the time being, Rouhani is sticking to the script of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who sets the country's foreign and security policy and appears to have ruled out U.S. negotiations without a return to the nuclear deal (read: sanctions relief).

Flashback: What made possible Rouhani’s historic phone call with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of UNGA in 2013 was Khamenei’s support for limited diplomacy under the guise of Iran showing “heroic flexibility.”

  • But Khamenei is currently offering no such blessing to diplomacy. Iran may therefore be unable to deliver on its reported willingness to make minor changes to the nuclear deal or accept a bigger deal for more money.

The bottom line: Rather than set the conditions for talks, Rouhani’s UNGA address locked in Iran’s position that “the only way [forward] is reliance on dignity, pride and national authority.” More Iranian escalation, whether in the region or on the nuclear domain, should be expected.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.