In the absence of any notable awards shows, the glamorous event that stirred up the press this week was none other than the 70th General Assembly of the United Nations. Days before the event, major outlets pointed out to readers what to watch out for, who to follow, and what the highlights were likely to be – from Vladimir Putin’s historic meeting with US President Barack Obama, to Raúl Castro’s UNGA debut, to the “little swagger in the step” of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during his post-deal speech (listen here).
And when it came, Rouhani’s address – which began, unexpectedly, with a condemnation of Saudi Arabia – received widespread coverage in the English-language media. Leading news outlets eagerly reported the president’s words on the nuclear deal, the “new chapter” in “Iran’s relations with the world,” and Iran’s “win-win” peace-seeking efforts in the Middle East (compared to the international community, which Rouhani said had “failed” Syrians). The Huffington Post called it an “optimistic, forward-looking approach” which defies hardline pressure; over at The New York Times, Rick Gladstone was more cautious, praising the speech (light on anti-US rhetoric) which “would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago” – but noting that there was only an “appearance” of a difference, “in tone, at least,” between Rouhani and Iran’s Supreme Leader.
In fact, not everyone took Rouhani’s New York visit and speech at face value. In The Guardian, an unnamed Iranian Tehran Bureau correspondent and “supporter” wrote an appeal to the Iranian leader, welcoming him to New York, thanking him for giving Iranians “hope” – but at the same time, imploring him to uphold the Iranian constitution by securing the release of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian (who is evidently excluded from Iran’s “peace-seeking efforts” and new approach).
Others were less forgiving towards the Iranian leader: the Baha’i World News Service published an op-ed castigating Rouhani’s speech for “falling short on human rights,” which have worsened in Iran under his watch, while the wife of a US pastor held in Iran expressed skepticism towards Rouhani’s offer to swap US captives in Iran – many of them innocent and jailed on false charges – for Iranians imprisoned in the US.
Not content with virtual disapproval, other dissenters took their protest out to the streets of New York, demonstrating by the hundreds outside the UN building to convey their disapproval of Rouhani’s words and policies; aside from Reuters and some right-wing outlets, few websites devoted extensive coverage to the protest.
As Rouhani left New York early to address the hajj tragedy back home, where the masses once again chanted “Death to America”, the media turned to other matters. Rouhani came and left. Great rhetoric, but little space between the Supreme Leader and Rouhani. Rouhani returns to the same revolution ideology, subversive activity and human rights violations.