Iranian President Hassan Rouhani landed in New York on Monday and began a blitz of media and official meetings on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly sessions. During his stay, Rouhani will engage with carefully selected groups of journalists, academics, and business people. He will undoubtedly be queried on a wide variety of topics, including the U.S. air campaign against militant groups in Iraq and Syria, the nuclear negotiations, and his first-year track record. He may also be probed about his views of the Holocaust, an issue that his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders have often used to stoke controversy, and about the steady drumbeat of human rights abuses committed by the Iranian government, including the July arrest of an Iranian-American correspondent for the Washington Post.
Rouhani brings to these conversations the sharp debate skills of his varied experience — as a cleric, a bureaucrat, and a retail politician who served five terms in Iran’s boisterous parliament. His performance in televised interviews and press conferences, as well as his compelling memoir of the early nuclear negotiations, demonstrate that unlike Ahmadinejad, he is capable of engaging in a genuine give-and-take. Here are some of the questions I’d put to Iran’s president during his U.S. visit this week:
- Eighteen months ago, when you were considering a bid for the presidency, you noted that “conditions [within Iran] are ripe for a moderate way of thinking.” Do you still believe this to be the case, and can moderate leadership overcome the continuing role of those Iranian political forces that advocate more extreme policies?
- Each of your predecessors has experienced significant difficulties in advancing his agenda due to domestic opposition in his second term, if not earlier. Do you think you can avoid a similar fate?
- Your presidency follows 16 years when the executive branch was led by men who were, in very different fashion, quite polarizing within the Iranian establishment, reformist Mohammad Khatami and hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. You have sought to carve out a less factionalized presidency, one that draws upon the entire political elite from hard-liners to reformists. But you have experienced vocal opposition to many of your policies and appointees. Is it possible to transcend Iran’s well-entrenched factionalism?
- You worked closely with Mir Husayn Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi in their respective roles as prime minister and speaker of the parliament during the 1980s and 1990s. They have now spent more than three and a half years under a very severe form of house arrest. Have you personally sought to secure their release?
- You have openly advocated expanding internet access and removing filtering and other forms of censoring the web. However, there is still powerful opposition within both the government itself and among many prominent clerics, and Iranians are still forced to use circumvention techniques to access applications like Twitter that you and your ministers use routinely. How can your government overcome the objections within the political establishment to unfettered internet access and, more broadly to lifting other restrictions on freedom of speech?
- Your economic agenda has sought to mitigate the impact of sanctions while your diplomacy has focused on eliminating them. Do you believe that Iran could survive and prosper if the current sanctions remain in place indefinitely? If there is no agreement, and new sanctions are imposed targeting Iran’s remaining oil exports, can your efforts to create jobs and growth while reducing inflation succeed?
- What role, if any, did the behind-the-scenes talks between U.S. and Iranian officials that took place prior to your June 2013 election have in persuading Iranian leaders that it was time for a shift in their approach to the nuclear negotiations?
- If a comprehensive agreement cannot be reached by the November 24 deadline, would you support efforts to continue diplomacy with the P5+1? How will Iran react if a deal is not concluded and the U.S. Congress moves to adopt new unilateral sanctions against Iran?
- Having personally led the negotiations on the nuclear issue in the early years of this impasse, do you support proposals by some Iranian officials to link the nuclear talks with cooperation on the regional crisis? Would broadening the agenda of the negotiations with the P5+1 be constructive or would it undermine the prospects for resolving either set of issues?
- Do you have confidence in President Obama’s capability to fulfill any commitments made as part of a comprehensive nuclear agreement? Are you concerned about the U.S. electoral cycle, and the possibility that the president’s successor may not be willing to adhere to a deal?
- You recently told an American interviewer that a “close relationship between the two nations [Iran and the United States] can resolve many problems…We have to look at future more than the past.” Are there issues on which you believe Washington and Tehran could engage constructively or even cooperate? Would you support revising the “no contact” policy that both governments still adhere to in all diplomatic interactions except for the nuclear talks?
- You have described the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS as “ridiculous” and this week’s airstrikes on the group’s positions in Syria as “illegal.” Are there any conditions under which Tehran would support a political solution to the Syrian civil war that removed Bashar al Assad and his inner circle from government? Given Iran’s longstanding alliance with the Assad regime and the horrifying toll of this conflict on the Syrian people and the security of the region, what is Iran prepared to do to facilitate an end to the bloodshed?
- This week marks the 34th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Iran. How did this experience shape your view of the world, and that of other revolutionary leaders? Since you, like the supreme leader and many other senior Iranian officials, were deeply involved with the war effort, how do you view Iran’s relationship with Iraq and role in Iraqi politics today? Is it possible for Iran to play a constructive role in building a democratic, nonsectarian Iraq?
- In Yemen, Houthi rebels who have long been backed by Tehran have just ousted the country’s prime minister. Will you support a democratic, inclusive Yemeni government? How will the shift in Yemen impact your efforts to promote rapprochement with Riyadh?
- During your New York stay, you are scheduled to meet with David Cameron, a first for an Iranian president and a British prime minister since the revolution. Last year, you spoke with President Obama by telephone during your UNGA visit. Can these unprecedented personal overtures to the leaders of countries with which Iran’s relations have been strained provide a pathway to a durable bilateral rapprochement?
- In recent weeks, there have been news reports of several sizeable trade deals signed by Iranian and Russian officials. Do you see Moscow as an attractive economic and strategic partner for Iran? Based on your long bilateral history, and Russia’s performance in the construction of the Bushehr power plant, do you have confidence in Moscow’s reliability to fulfill its commitments to Iran?
- Iran has recently undertaken joint naval exercises with China in the Persian Gulf. Would Iran welcome a more substantial role for China in ensuring the security of energy flow from the region?
- Earlier this year, there was a controversy surrounding Iran’s nominee for its United Nations envoy, Hamid Aboutalebi, over his role as a translator to the students who overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and held its staff hostage for 444 days. President Obama signed a bill with overwhelming Congressional support to reject Mr. Aboutalebi’s visa request. Mr. Aboutalebi continues to serve as your deputy chief of staff for political affairs and an important advisor. Were you surprised that the Embassy seizure remains such a sensitive issue for Americans? Will Iran nominate another individual in his place?
- Beyond the Iranian diaspora community, there is still very limited direct contact between Americans and Iranians today. In 2006, one of your predecessors, Mohammad Khatami, engaged in a U.S. speaking tour. If you could invite one American – a politician, a business leader, or a cultural figure – to Iran to see the country and hear from its people first-hand, who would that be?
- You were awarded a doctoral degree by Glasgow Caledonian University, which makes you the first Iranian president since Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who was impeached and forced to flee the country in July 1981, to have studied in the West. How does that impact your views of Iran’s relations with the world? Would you advise future Iranian leaders to explore opportunities to study in Europe, America or elsewhere in the world?
[The U.S. seeks] to portray Iran as a criminal enterprise, not just as another bad country but as a rogue state that is engaged in horrible crimes across the region.... We are moving from a position of accommodation to one of confrontation across multiple fronts.