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At Davos, the charm offensive of Iranian president Hassan Rohani (translated from Le Monde)

25 Jan


(link to original article in Le Monde)

Is it going to become a regular habit? Four times after his presentation in front of the UN General Assembly, the Iranian president Hassan Rohani has successively stolen the thunder from his adversary, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this Thursday 23 january at the world economic forum of Davos, mounting a charm operation aimed at western businessmen, who are invited to invest in Iran.

Loudly applauded by an auditorium which, visibly, was eager to hear this speech, M. Rohani confirmed that “constructive engagement” was “one of the pillars” of the politics of his government, and that he meant to put it to work at one ambition: integrating Iran into the group of emerging economies. “Iran has the potential to be one of the ten foremost world economies in the next three decades,” he said. “Its economy is promising and can meet the other emerging economies.”

Normalising relations with Iran with the EU

The Iranian president supports that they renew commercial relations with the countries of the region, notably Turkey and Russia. The initiation of a nuclear agreement with Iran, which his country negotiated with the international community and over which he has a “strong and serious intention” to, through it, allow Iran to “normalise its relations with the EU.” With the United States, Tehran “has also embarked on a new stage these last months.” All this, he summarised, constitutes “a major change since the Islamic revolution.”

Reaffirming that his country had no military nuclear ambition, but that the Iranians “were not ready to abandon the technology” that enabled them to produce civil nuclear energy, the Iranian president also declared himself ready to participate in the collective effort for global energy security. Very at ease in front of an auditorium of over a thousand attendees of the forum at Davos, who he invited – “all” – to come to Iran, smiling pleasantly, his well-groomed beard and lively expression behind his neat glasses, M. Rohani was inarguably embarked on a charm offensive to give the impression that his country was from now on open to business, with a view to the lifting of sanctions.

In a conversation with a small group of journalists, sometime later, he even chatted about his Twitter account and swore that he did not tweet himself: he left this task to “his friends”. On foreign affairs in the region, however, he did not reveal anything, in his responses to the questions of Prof. Schwab, founder of the Davos Forum. In Syria, he proposes to “stop the bloodbath”, then to drive out “the terrorists come from elsewhere”. As for Israel, nothing is giving: when Professor Schwab asked him if he wanted better relations with “all” the countries of the region, without exception, M. Rohani clarified, with a large smile, “With all those which recognise us.”


Proceed with Prudence

For Vali Nasr, dean of the international faculty of Johns Hopkins University in Washington and specialist on Iran, the performance of M. Rohani at Davos consisted of “bypassing the nuclear question and putting the emphasis on integration of his country into the regional and global economy, which is a new direction.” This president wants to give an alternative image, analysed another expert, Iranian, who wished to remain anonymous. “He does not mix any ideology or revolutionary rhetoric into his speech. He has decided to use all possible occasions to address the world, and in particular to the Americans and Europeans.”

And Davos has provided him with a brilliant forum. A little later, the US Secretary of the Treasury, Jacob Lew, did however temper the potential enthusiasm that the Iranian president had stirred up, putting American companies on their guard. In an interview with the BBC, he urged them to “proceed with prudence” and not to launch themselves into Iran while the majority of sanctions were still in place.

Speaking at the same forum a few hours later, Benjamin Netanyahou knew that it would be more difficult to counter Hassan Rohani than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Israelian delegation to Davos was backed up by Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni. The Israeli prime minister delivered a superb advertisement for Israel, “nation of technological innovation”, but his smile slipped when he was question on the performance of the Iranian president. “Yes, he has changed his speeches,” he said, “but has not changed in his actions. He denounces foreign interventions in Syria? But we know that all of Iran is intervening in Syria, with its revolutionary guards on the ground!”