ISTANBUL – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive has stalled. It worked well in the United Nations General Assembly last September, when he had something solid to offer – a deal on his country’s nuclear program – raising hopes that Iran’s hardline foreign-policy stance would finally soften. But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s withdrawal of Iran’s invitation to the Geneva II conference on Syria suggests that Rouhani will need more than charm – or even a visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Tehran – to end his country’s isolation.
Rouhani has been largely successful in putting his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tone-deaf leadership firmly in the past. The Iranian establishment has supported his attempts to open the country up to its regional neighbors, court foreign investment, call for moderation in religious and cultural matters, and even pursue the nuclear deal with the West.
In fact, the nuclear agreement – which seems close to completion – is likely to be Iran’s most important diplomatic achievement since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, providing it with considerable relief both domestically and internationally. The fact that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei personally backed the effort makes it all the more promising.
Nonetheless, the regime’s possible rapprochement with the United States remains a source of concern in the Middle East, because it would empower Iran at a time when the US is gradually disengaging from the region. The question now is whether Rouhani’s moderation toward the West will be accompanied by a change in Iran’s Middle East policy, with all eyes on its policy toward Syria.