Davos audience: lapping up Rouhani

Simply by coming to the World Economic Forum, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is sending a message. He is the first Iranian president to have spoken in Davos for a decade. In a public speech at the forum and in private meetings with journalists, the president has sought to present a smiling and conciliatory face.

Certainly his personal style is a marked contrast to that of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, his predecessor. While Ahmadi-Nejad was all staring eyes and confrontation, Rouhani has a ready laugh and listens carefully to questions.

Yet the content of the Iranian president’s speech was not particularly innovative or conciliatory. While he made it clear that he regards improved relations with the outside world as a pre-condition for the economic improvements that he wants in Iran, there were no real shifts in Iran’s position on the key political issues: nuclear weapons, Syria and relations with Israel.

On nuclear weapons, President Rouhani emphasised again and again that Iran has no intention of developing nuclear weapons. He had no real answer to the question of why a civil nuclear programme should be so important to a country that has such huge reserves of oil and gas – and was reduced to muttering about the medical uses of nuclear technology.

On Syria, the Iranian president made it clear that he regards the central problem as “ruthless terrorists” that are fighting the Assad regime. And although he waxed indignant about human-rights abuses committed by Israel, he seemed largely unmoved by the actions of the Syrian government.

The Davos audience, however, is clearly desperate to think well of President Rouhani. When Klaus Schwab, the head of the WEF, invited the Iranian to say that he looked forward to enjoying normal relations with all the countries in the region, Mr Rouhani assented to this proposition – drawing a round of warm applause from the Davos crowd, which took this to be a reference to Israel. The audience missed, or ignored, Rouhani’s crucial qualifier, which was to add that he wanted good relations with all countries that Iran recognises. That does not include Israel.