Iran's Rouhani freer to speak but hands tied

Iran's outreach to the West signifies a new pragmatic approach to foreign policy after eight years of isolation but does not mark a radical shift in its ideologies and principles, analysts say.

President Hassan Rouhani has made some headway in wooing world leaders by presenting a more moderate Iranian profile than did his hardline predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the experts say.

But, they caution, the extent of Rouhani's relative freedom in foreign policy is confined to nuclear negotiations with major world powers.

In an address at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Rouhani touted Tehran's openness to normalising relations with the West.

His pledges came in the wake of a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in November, under which Tehran agreed to curb parts of its atomic drive for six months in exchange for modest relief from international sanctions.

And that, say experts, is about as far as Rouhani can go in his moulding of a more user-friendly face for the Islamic republic.

"The foundations of the Iranian foreign policy will not change," said Mehdi Fazeli, an analyst close to Iran's conservatives.

Change of methods, approaches

"The government can merely change the methods and approaches as Rouhani did to win the trust of the West," he said.

Rouhani's government has very limited margin in its diplomacy, said a Tehran-based Western diplomat.

"It is in charge of nuclear talks, but it does not decide on the key issues of nuclear policy," said the diplomat.

As it stands now, Rouhani enjoys the support of all-powerful Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the nuclear issue, so he could give a cold shoulder to the regime's hardliners and lawmakers who are critical of the nuclear agreement.

But ultra-conservatives still make their presence felt.

On Wednesday, a scheduled Rouhani live television interview was delayed for nearly an hour because the hardline Khamenei-appointed state broadcasting chief disagreed with the choice of interviewers.

Afshon Ostovar from the CNA Centre for Strategic Studies says Rouhani's shift "has so far been more tonal than absolute".

The views of Iran's leaders have not drastically changed, he said, despite there now being more of an appetite for cooperation across Iran's political spectrum.

A historic phone call between Rouhani and his US counterpart Barack Obama in September paved the way for a marginal thaw in relations after diplomatic ties were severed in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The two countries' foreign ministers, Mohammad Javad Zarif and John Kerry, have also met several times, most recently at last week's Munich International Security Conference.

Zarif has gone so far as to tell Russian television that Washington could one day reopen its embassy in Tehran.

On Sunday, Zarif made a friendly gesture to the world's Jewish community, describing the Holocaust as a "cruel tragedy which should never happen again".

Rouhani, whose predecessor had denied the Holocaust had ever happened, had led the way by sending a message of congratulations to the country's estimated 8,000 Jews on the occasion of their new year.

"Rouhani and Zarif have different ideas on political and ideological matters compared to their predecessors," said Alireza Nader, an analyst at the Rand Corporation think tank.

"But it is not clear that Rouhani will be able to make fundamental changes in some foreign policy issues that concern the United States the most," he said, pointing to the fact that Iran supports the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah and refuses to recognise Israel as a state.

In the past few months, the conservative-dominated parliament has frequently summoned Zarif and other ministers on a variety of issues, including the meetings between Zarif and Kerry.

Two distinct audiences

"Rouhani's government has two audiences: one foreign and one domestic," said analyst Ostovar.

When Zarif "rejects holocaust denial, he does so with foreign governments and publics in mind. However, when he reiterates criticism for the state of Israel and Zionism more broadly, he does so to placate hardliners in Iran".

The Western diplomat pointed out that Rouhani's government is not responsible for making decisions regarding Syria, where Tehran supports President Bashar al-Assad as he fights a rebellion that has morphed into a full-scale civil war.

Zarif also insisted he had never engaged in discussions with Kerry on the Syrian crisis.

As for relations with Washington, "Iran wants a modus vivendi (temporary agreement) rather than standardisation of ties," said the diplomat.

Tehran and Washington have a number of common interests which could be tackled under such an arrangement, including Afghanistan and mutual support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his battle against Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Anbar province.

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