Smiles Trump scowls In Iran Picture

THE first direct conversation in more than 30 years between the Iranian and American heads of state ended with the words `Have a nice day, Mr President` and `Khoda Hafiz`, uttered respectively by Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama.
They were communicating over the phone as Rouhani headed for the airport in New York after a five-day sojourn during which a much-anticipated encounter between him and the US president failed to eventuate, apparently because the Iranians baulked at the prospect.
Rouhani failed to attend a lunch hosted by United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon where he inevitably would have run into Obama, ostensibly on the basis that alcohol would be served at the function.
There`s adequate cause to assume, though, that he was deterred not by the prospect of proximity to forbidden beverages but the suspicion that a handshake would be a step too far for the hardliners back home.
On his return, Rouhani was greeted at the airport by a couple of hundred supporters hailing his diplomatic foray, as well as a smaller crowd that hurled shoes and eggs at his entourage while intoning familiar old slogans such as `Death to America` and `Death to Israel`.
The latter chant in particular must have slotted in comfortably into the worldview of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The latter made clear well before his address to the General Assembly what sortof views he would be taking to the UN: that Iran is not to be trusted under any circumstances, and that Rouhani`s gestures variously dubbed `a charm offensive` and `a smile offensive` are merely a cover for an insidious agenda that entails nuclear weapons capability and fulfilment of a long-standing desire to obliterate Israel.
Much to his discomfiture, though, in the emerging scenario Netanyahu comes across as the odd man out. He is not alone, of course. Some of Iran`s neighbours are equally wary of Tehran`s intentions, although they would be loath to officially admit that they partially share the Israeli prime minister`s nightmares.
And in recent weeks neoconservatives in the US have been emerging from the woodwork to denounce Obama`s susceptibility to Iranian overtures, with some, including The Weekly Standard`s irrepressibly obnoxious William Kristol, even pushing the demented idea of Israeli military strikes in order to pre-empt any diplomatic breakthrough.
Neither the naysayers in Israel nor their counterparts in the US are willing, of course, to highlight the fact that intelligence agencies in both countries concluded as recently as last year that in their opinion Iran had, at least for the time being, set aside the notion of manufacturing nuclear weapons as far back as 2003.
Benny Gantz, the head of the Israeli Defence Forces, noted that `the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people`, while acknowledging that Islamic fundamentalists could choose a different course in the future.It was easy to disbelieve Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he claimed his nation deplored the very idea of nuclear weapons, because he was simultaneously prone to offering anti-Semitic sound bites ranging from Holocaust denial to hinted threats against Israel.
Rouhani has taken a remarkably different approach, which has included a series of overtures to Jews.
The likes of Netanyahu are inclined to cast him as a wolf in sheep`s clothing. At the same time, as Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has pointed out, Iranian hardliners `probably view him as a sheep in wolf`s clothing`.
It is assumed that not only Rouhani`s conciliatory approach but even his resounding success as a relatively moderate candidate in this year`s presidential poll are largly a consequence of Western sanctions against Iraq. These have succeeded in making the economy scream, with scarcities compounded by a steadily deteriorating exchange rate and unsustainable levels of inflation. That is probably true to some perhaps even a considerable extent. A great many Iranians, though, have never been comfortable with their country being cast as an international pariah.
This is so regardless of how fiercely they resented US intervention in their internal affairs, not least the coup 60 years ago against the nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and, subsequently, sustained support until 1979 for the Shah`s oppressive regime which included, mind you, the gift of a nuclearreactor.
When Rouhani`s Western detractors run out of arguments, they tend to say that he is anyway not really in charge in Tehran: that power ultimately rests with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. To the extent that is indeed the case, it`s not exactly irrelevant to recall that Khamenei, as Obama noted in his UN address last week, has issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons.
It isn`t particularly difficult to envisage circumstances in which such a decree can be discounted. But they don`t exist at present. And it is not inconceivable that dedicated pursuit of diplomacy at this stage could lead to an international agreement that would make it very hard, if not impossible, to rescind its purported moral aversion to nuclear weapons.
It is worth noting at the same time that for the moment the only impediment to a nuclear-free Middle East is Israel`s unacknowledged arsenal.
One cannot, in the meantime, discount the suspicion that diplomacy, at some level, might not work. The suggestion that it ought not even to be given a chance is, on the other hand, profoundly reprehensible not least when its possible success could potentially open the door to stability in Lebanon and accommodation, and at a stretch, perhaps even peace in Syria.
The possibility that the sceptics may be right after all cannot altogether be discounted, but for the moment it undoubtedly seems Rouhani and Obama`s smiles are worth much more than the scowl offensive of Netanyahu and his acolytes.