Iran’s Shifting Stance on Syria, Israel, and Nuclear Power

Iran’s Shifting Stance on Syria, Israel, and Nuclear Power

In the past few days, the international community has seen a series of surprising gestures from Iran, indicating a possible shift in posture. The West has grown accustomed to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bombastic antagonism toward the West and Israel. But it seems that newly sworn-in President Hassan Rouhani may be taking a slightly different approach to foreign affairs.

A softened stance on Syria

Iran has consistently been one of Syria’s strongest allies, steadfastly providing the Assad regime with military support. For its part, the Syrian regime has long facilitated Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah. But with the United States in the process of building international support for punitive strikes on Syria, Rouhani has seemed to take a softer stance on the Syria issue.

Speaking before Iran’s Assembly of Experts last week, he said, “If something happens to the Syrian people, the Islamic Republic of Iran will do its religious and humanitarian duties to send them food and medicine.” This statement is noteworthy because it neither threatens retaliation nor pledges any form of military reinforcement. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, took a similar step back from unconditional support of the Assad regime several days earlier when he said, “We believe that the government in Syria has made grave mistakes that have, unfortunately, paved the way for the situation in the country to be abused.”

That being said, Zarif has expressed clear opposition to the idea of a U.S. strike on Syria, and Iran’s material support for the Syrian regime will continue no matter the country’s official military response. What is notable, however, is the subtle shift in the aggressiveness of the rhetoric.

Nuclear negotiations in new hands

Meanwhile, Tehran announced Thursday that negotiations with the international community on Iran’s nuclear program will now be conducted by the Foreign Ministry, which is headed by Zarif. This represents a significant shift, as these talks previously were the responsibility of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, led by hard-liner Saeed Jalili, a close advisor of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a fierce opponent of the West.

Zarif, however, who studied in the United States and spent many years living there, seems to maintain a more moderate outlook. This will be put to the test when negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency resume September 27.

Happy Rosh Hashanah tweets

In perhaps the most surprising of all developments, both Rouhani and Zarif tweeted Happy Rosh Hashanah messages. A message from Rouhani’s Twitter account read, “As the sun is about to set here in #Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah.” Later, Zarif tweeted, “Happy Rosh Hashanah.” These messages, though they made no mention of Israel, represent a significant about-face on the part of Iran’s leadership with regard to the international Jewish community.

While in office, Ahmadinejad repeatedly denied the Holocaust and called for the elimination of Israel. In an exchange with Representative Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Christine, Zarif distanced the current government from that of Ahmadinejad, saying that the former president’s views do not speak for Iran as a whole.

For those in the international community who hope to ease tensions with Iran, this series of developments certainly seems promising. It remains to be seen, however, whether these gestures will be accompanied by meaningful policy changes.

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