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Iran's Hard-Liners Muted On Rohani's Historic Call With Obama

Iranian newspapers feature Iranian President Hassan Rohani and U.S. President Barack Obama, as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meeting his U.S. counterpart John Kerry on September 28.
A historic telephone call between Iranian President Hassan Rohani and U.S. President Barack Obama has generally been welcomed in the Islamic republic, where anti-American slogans and policies have dominated the political scene for more than three decades.

Upon his return to Iran after attending the UN General Assembly last week, Rohani was greeted by a group of egg- and shoe-throwing hard-liners. But the protesters were outnumbered by those shouting support, a phenomenon that would be repeated in the coming days as hard-liners remained relatively muted in their criticism of the president's contact with Obama.

The September 27 telephone call was the first such contact between leaders of the two countries after they broke off ties following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage-taking of U.S. diplomats in Tehran.

Within Iran, the conversation has been praised by many citizens, reformists, and even by some members of the conservative factions of the Islamic establishment.

Some have said that the call creates hope for detente and a solution to the crisis over their country's sensitive nuclear work. And even if the chat with Iran's archenemy has been difficult to digest for hard-liners, for whom resistance to the United States is a raison d'etre, there have been few vocal criticisms.

The reason, analysts say, is that Rohani's efforts have the support of the highest echelons of the Islamic establishment, although they note that opposition will surely follow if the president's diplomatic approach fails to produce results.

Dialogue Approved, At Least For Now

On September 30, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Ali Jafari criticized the call between Rohani and Obama as premature, saying the Iranian president should have waited until the United States had taken concrete measures to prove its sincerity.

Even Jafari, however, essentially expressed his approval of Rohani's diplomatic outreach by noting the president had taken "firm and appropriate positions" during his recent trip to New York. "There could be other strategic mistakes on the path the government has taken, such as the telephone call," Jafari told the conservative Tasnim news agency. "But these mistakes can be repaired."

Iranian President Hassan Rohani will need to show results, analysts say.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani will need to show results, analysts say.
The ultra-hard-line daily "Kayhan," which has often presented the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also critical of the telephone call. "If it was a decent act, why does neither side accept the responsibility?" the daily asked.

The criticism highlights the complexity of Iranian politics and the tightrope Rohani and his team will have to walk as they prepare to hold fresh nuclear negotiations with world powers.

Mashhad-based journalist and former lawmaker Mohammad Sadegh Javadi Hessar expects to hear from critics on both sides, but their message will be muted for now. "Opposing voices will be heard on both sides, in the U.S. and also in Iran," he says. "But these voices will not be dominant; the voice of the government and the establishment that has taken the path of engagement will be dominating the debate."

Javadi Hessar says hard-liners cannot go against the wishes of the supreme leader, who last month called for "heroic flexibility" in Iran's negotiations with the West. Khamenei, Hessar says, "feels the need for [Iran] to resolve its problems with the world."

Hard-Liners Unconvinced

Iran analyst Reza Alijani, however, is less certain and warns that hard-liners could still attempt to derail Iran's diplomatic shift with the United States and other major powers involved in nuclear negotiations. "Particularly in the past eight years, security-military forces interfered significantly in politics. It is now difficult for them to back off," he says.

"Despite Khamenei's call for 'heroic flexibility,' it is hard for the hard-liners to find justification for direct talks with the United States. Therefore we see this criticism from some of the IRGC commanders and 'Kayhan,'" he adds. "I think the criticism is not only against Rohani but also a maneuver to influence Khamenei himself."

Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, says it's not surprising that Rohani came under some criticism following his call with Obama. But he says there seems to be a general consensus within the Iranian establishment that for the sanctions to be lifted and for the economy to be improved there has to be some kind of dialogue with the United States.

"I think for the Iranian establishment it's hard to admit that their policies in the past eight years have been met with failure and now they have to consider something they've been opposing for a very long time," Nader adds. "But I don't think they have much of a choice at this point."

Khamenei has so far not publicly reacted to the call. But in what appeared to be a sign of his support for Rohani, his foreign-policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, greeted the Iranian president upon his arrival from New York.

But Nader notes that the continued support of Iran's highest authorities is not guaranteed. "They're waiting for Rohani’s approach to produce results, mainly the lifting of sanctions," Nader says. "If it does not, then his position is weakened."

In his September 30 comments, IRGC commander Jafari said Washington should respond to "Iran's goodwill" by taking a number of steps, including "removing all sanctions against the Iranian nation, releasing Iranian assets frozen in the United States, ending its hostility toward Iran, and accepting Iran's nuclear program."

In the city of Isfahan, senior conservative cleric Mohammad Taghi Rahbar suggested that the "Death to America" slogans traditionally chanted at state events, including Friday Prayers, could someday be dropped. The chants, he said, were not Koranic verses and were thus not eternal.

Written and reported by Golnaz Esfandiari, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Farda correspondent Reza Jamali
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.