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Iran Press Report: Reactions to Rouhani's Phone Call with Obama

Understandably, after the first direct contact between an American president and a member of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s leadership, the Iranian press heavily analyzed the phone conversation between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani that took place last Friday. Hardliners largely called the discussion a mistake in an otherwise successful trip, while reformists and centrists were vociferous in their defense of the president’s bold decision to break the taboo of talking to America.

In a Kayhan editorial, entitled “What Did We Give Up and What Did We Get?” analyzed in other sources, Hossein Shariatmadari, the de facto dean of the hardline editors in Iran, expressed his disappointment with the phone call, saying it made Iran look weak and desperate and that American and Zionist officials “reframe the aforementioned telephone conversation in terms of the ‘capitulation of Islamic Iran.’”  His fellow Kayhan columnist Mohammad Imani agreed, saying, “What the Great Satan did in the final minutes of Dr. Rouhani’s trip to New York for the UN meeting was like throwing a mouse in the dish containing all the great victories the president had earned.”  He added that Iran should have known better and that, as other adversaries of Washington have learned before, handing America the ability to look like a peacemaker gets it off the hook and amounts to nothing: “From the souvenir photos that Yasser Arafat took with statesmen of America and the Zionist regime, in the four corners of the world, one could make dozens of albums and books.  But did these exercises and handshakes with the criminals succeed in getting even one morsel of Palestinian land back to give to the Palestinian people?!” 

Another conservative paper, Resalat, ran a commentary by Mohammad Kazem Anbarlui saying that Rouhani made a mistake by accepting to talk to Obama due to the knowledge that American policy in the Middle East is still dictated by Israel. He says became clear when Netanyahu visited the White House this week, prompting Obama to reiterate that all options remain on the table vis-à-vis Iran – this seeming a direct contradiction of Obama’s supposed vow that America is not seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic.  “As long as idiots reign in the Zionist lobby of American foreign policy, we will get no results,” he concluded.  Using soccer terminology, he summed up, “The telephone conversation with Obama in the 90th minute was a diplomatic foul, and must not be repeated.”

Supporters of the president, however, defended the phone call and called on critics to cease their attacks, saying that they were opportunistic or short-sighted.  In the centrist daily Jomhouri Eslami, an unsigned editorial called on hardliners to be moderate too like the president, who had nobly refrained from fighting back at his critics, opening the door for a more vibrant political space: “One of the main goals for the beginning of the Eleventh Presidency [the Rouhani administration]  was to open the space for criticism and to create an arena where dissent and different opinions can be expressed.”  Citing the apparent tacit support given by the supreme leader to Rouhani efforts, the paper continues: “Luckily, the critics all consider themselves ardent supporters of the velayat system and even believe that their dissents are in support of the supreme leader.  If they are true to their claims, then they should consider and support the supreme leader’s silence, which indicates that he supports the move [to talk by phone with Obama] or at least is not against it.”

In Shargh, which carried many reformist views praising the conversation, Mostafa Izadi wrote that, despite what hardliners have said out of fear that Iran will be exploited by the United States, Rouhani’s willingness to talk was an example of the “heroic flexibility” called for by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, saying, “Hassan Rouhani’s key opened one of Iran’s most important international doors.” Similarly, in the reformist daily Etemaad, Seyyed Reza Akrami argued that Rouhani’s decision to talk to Obama was well justified by the positive signs coming from America, and that the president should be praised, not judged: “Obama, in his speech, announced that America is not seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic.  When his tone is like this, and has changed in such a manner, our style should also be such as to put an ointment on old wounds and take steps to solve problems.”

Even some conservatives urged more prudence and respect for the president’s actions.  In Resalat, which, as mentioned above, ran an editorial chastising Rouhani, Mahmoud Farshidi defended the president from right-wingers.  He argued also that those who expected Rouhani to make a bigger breakthrough in relations with the United States were naively ignoring 35 years of animosity, and praised his decision to snub a face-to-face meeting, saying, “the refusal of the American president’s request for a meeting showed the independence of the Islamic Republic’s political system.”  That said, he argued, criticizing Rouhani for then accepting a phone conversation with Obama shows an ignorance of Khamenei’s “heroic flexibility.”  Iran now waits for more signs of change from America, which he says showed its desperation for relations with Iran in Obama’s reaction to the call: “The American president showed just how important negotiating with Iran is to him…when immediately after the telephone call, he frantically held a press conference to report this news.”


APPENDIX: Translated Summaries of Selected Opinion Pieces (Newest to Oldest)

“Souvenir of the Trip to New York!” Mahmoud Farshidi, Resalat, 11 Mehr 1392 / 3 October 2013.

Farshidi writes in the conservative Resalat  that a middle, reasoned approach must be taken when analyzing Rouhani’s visit to New York, which he views as having been largely successful.  He writes that, with 35 years of animosity between Iran and America, anyone who wanted Rouhani to fix relations between the two nations in one visit was deeply naïve and unrealistic, and that “the refusal of the American president’s request for a meeting showed the independence of the Islamic Republic’s political system.”  At the same time, he writes, those hardliners who have criticized Rouhani for opening the path to dialogue and speaking with Obama are being unduly harsh, and ignoring the supreme leader’s request for “heroic flexibility.”  In the end, he writes, Iran was given signs of the importance it has earned and the desperation America has to talk to the Islamic Republic.  “The American president showed just how important negotiating with Iran is to him…when immediately after the telephone call, he frantically held a press conference to report this news.”

“The Pain of Idiocy is the Wrath of God!” Mohammad Kazem Anbarlui, Resalat,  10 Mehr 1392 / 2 October 2013.

Anbarlui writes, also in Resalat, that the actions of Obama upon the visit of Netanyahu showed the fruitless and pointless nature of trying to negotiate with America, and called the decision to talk by phone with Obama a mistake as a result.  He says it appeared America’s behavior was on the right track during the visit of Rouhani, only for the influence of the Zionists to derail this momentum. “The effect of this [American] flexibility and change showed in the speech of the American president, and also in their request for a telephone dialogue (according to Zarif, who said he was contacted six times by the White House for a phone conversation).  But the arrival of one idiot in the middle of these discussions ruined everything.”  According to Anbarlui, the Iranian team should have known that Netanyahu – “who without a doubt is no more than an idiot” – would have sway over American policy and that he would cause the diplomatic push to be meaningless in the end.  “As long as idiots reign in the Zionist lobby of American foreign policy, we will get no results,” he concludes.  Using soccer terminology, he sums up, “The telephone conversation with Obama in the 90th minute was a diplomatic foul, and must not be repeated.”

“Photo Album of a Bully.” Mohammad Imani, Kayhan, 8 Mehr 1392 / 30 September 2013.

In one of Kayhan’s two editorials dealing with the phone call, Mohammad Imani argues that the acceptance of Obama’s call was a great blunder by Rouhani, giving the American president a diplomatic victory when he otherwise would have been looked at as a failure.  He writes that Rouhani had done everything right throughout his trip to New York but failed to prevent America from fouling it up.  “What the Great Satan did in the final minutes of Dr. Rouhani’s trip to New York for the UN meeting was like throwing a mouse in the dish containing all the great victories the president had earned.”  He says that the Americans had been trying to tempt Rouhani, and that by giving into this temptation, the Iranian team “scored an own goal, and lost the opportunity to win the game.”  He writes that Obama’s success in obtaining the conversation with Rouhani was such a big victory for America that he immediately went to trumpet it in a press conference.  He argues that Rouhani gave America a public relations victory, unfortunately timed to let Obama off the hook at a time when he seemed like a lame duck thanks to his handling of the Syria crisis, and allowed Washington to look like a peacemaker without having done anything to change its ways.  He says there are examples of this that should have warned Rouhani away from his decision: “From the souvenir photos that Yasser Arafat took with statesmen of America and the Zionist regime, in the four corners of the world, one could make dozens of albums and books.  But did these exercises and handshakes with the criminals succeed in getting even one morsel of Palestinian land back to give to the Palestinian people?!”  He also cites John Kerry’s trip to Damascus in 2010 to meet Bashar al-Assad as an example of how meeting with high-level American officials is meaningless – America will still not hesitate to violently turn on those it meets with, and the Iranian team should have realized this and rejected the phone call.

“Be Moderate Too.” Jomhouri Eslami, 8 Mehr 1392 / 30 September 2013.

The daily Jomhouri Eslami writes in its editorial that the vociferous criticism of Rouhani’s phone conversation with Obama that has become “the top story in the hardline media” comes from short-sighted extremists acting with political motivations who had no problem praising Ahmadinejad for writing a letter to his American counterpart and announcing his readiness to meet US officials. It writes that Rouhani and his team have been dignified in their lack of reaction to this criticism, and that this tolerance for dissent is a testament to his moderateness.  “One of the main goals for the beginning of the Eleventh Presidency [the Rouhani administration]  was to open the space for criticism and to create an arena where dissent and different opinions can be expressed.” He writes that those who are suggesting that Rouhani’s talk with Obama damaged the Islamic Republic are usurping the constitutional role of the supreme leader to be the arbiter of the nation’s foreign policy.  “President Rouhani, on many occasions before and during his trip to New York, announced that he had been given authority for his actions on the trip…and it is clear that what he did was within the authority he had.  Luckily, the critics all consider themselves ardent supporters of the velayat system and even believe that their dissents are in support of the supreme leader.  If they are true to their claims, then they should consider and support the supreme leader’s silence, which indicates that he supports the move or at least is not against it.”

“The Power of Logic.” Seyyed Reza Akrami, Etemaad, 8 Mehr 1392 / 30 September 2013.

In the reformist Etemaad, Akrami provides a defense of Rouhani’s logical actions in having a phone conversation with Obama, which he says took place under the authority of the supreme leader, saying that the president’s description of the call shouldn’t be the subject of attacks. “When Rouhani says that he was on the road back and he was told that Obama wanted to talk to him and then the connection was made, why must it be doubted who made the initial request for the conversation?  When the president of Iran clearly announces this, doubting him exposes the bias of the questioner.”  He also praises Rouhani for taking the opportunity to try to put the troubles of the past behind, saying this approach reflects positively on the nation.  “Obama, in his speech, announced that America is not seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic.  When his tone is like this, and has changed in such a manner, our style should also be such as to put an ointment on old wounds and take steps to solve problems.”