A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on September 22, 2020, shows President Hassan Rouhani delivering his United Nations General Assembly speech online from the capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / Iranian Presidency

The 75th United Nations General Assembly that ran from September 22 to 29 was not impervious to the blight of the Covid-19 pandemic, and unlike in preceding years, New York City was not the rendezvous of top-tier leaders and high-profile delegations flocking to Manhattan to mark what has usually been a monumental diplomatic event and a magnet for the world media.

The General Assembly this year was eviscerated of its traditional exuberance characterized by hotly anticipated or rare encounters between heads of state and government, impassioned speeches during the General Debate sessions, particularly those by the rulers of “rogue states” who are otherwise banished from international forums, and news-thirsty correspondents hunting presidents and prime ministers to solicit headline-grabbing statements from them in candid interviews.  

However, world leaders sent pre-recorded video statements to the General Assembly, building on digital technology, to make sure the annual diplomatic fiesta was propped up despite a paralyzing global pandemic.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was one of the first speakers, and his remarks were broadcast on September 22 after the speech by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Despite maintaining a conciliatory and unprovocative tone, President Rouhani did not have anything new to say, and disillusioned his domestic base and his foreign counterparts by failing to proffer solid solutions to Iran’s nuclear impasse, stave off the demise of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), curb the vicious circle of confrontation with the United States, and clinch relief from the sanctions that have injured Iranian citizens.

This was the last chance for Rouhani to use the opening presented by the General Assembly to reach out to the international community and get his message across. He will be replaced by a new president in next year’s elections.

He enumerated what he claimed were Iran’s constructive initiatives in establishing peace and security in the Middle East, from Iraq and Lebanon to Yemen and Afghanistan. Never mind the assertions made by the politicians of the United States and a constellation of Western countries who unanimously describe Iran’s regional activities as malign and destabilizing.

Perhaps the climax of his speech was the statement he made when he said the United States can impose “neither negotiations nor war” on the Islamic Republic, after trampling underfoot the Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsing the nuclear deal.

Peddling this bravado that Iran will not negotiate with the United States while blustering that the White House does not have the guts to wage a war against Iran is now the Islamic Republic’s official talking point, and although its articulation by a moderate politician such as Hassan Rouhani might sound disappointing, it appears that the Iranian leadership does not envisage any alternative recipe, at least as long as Donald Trump is in power.

At the same time as betokening Rouhani’s unfortunate departure from his campaign promise of constructive engagement with the international community, ruling out talks with the United States during a UN General Assembly address by Iran’s chief executive presaged that the economic despair of the Iranian people and the global isolation of the country will have to persist until further notice.

Iran was prudent enough to refuse to abrogate the JCPOA when President Trump unilaterally annulled the US participation in the accord in May 2018. Any action by Iran to rescind the JCPOA could easily have precipitated a catastrophic military showdown in the region.

Yet its prudence was overtaken by ideological adventurism when in late 2019 and early 2020, Iran rolled back its technical JCPOA obligations in five consecutive steps, complaining that its “strategic patience” had limits and it could not wait any longer for the other signatories to the JCPOA to honor their part of the bargain.

Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA caught the Iranian government off-guard, even though he had pledged on the campaign trail that he would rip up the “disastrous” Iran deal if elected president. Nevertheless, the Iranian leadership had shrugged off his statements as campaign bluffs.  

It transpired shortly after the United States added the JCPOA to the inventory of countless international treaties and agreements it deserted under President Trump that the Islamic Republic did not have any Plan B for shielding the Iran deal and preventing it from tailing off.

After jettisoning the deal, Trump reinstated all the sanctions that had been lifted in 2015 when Iran and six world powers as well as the European Union put their signatures on the landmark agreement. The restoration of the sanctions meant that push had come to shove, Iran’s economy was in dire straits once more and it had to push the envelope to save a deal that was the fruit of at least 13 years of diplomacy.

But the entrepreneurship and initiative that had allowed the JCPOA to come into being when Tehran pragmatically embraced the reality that it had to make concessions in its nuclear program so as to be unshackled from the chains of economic sanctions it had borne for decades were abruptly gone when Trump discarded the internationally celebrated deal.

Iran did not work with the European Union sufficiently to capitalize on the friction between Brussels and Washington arising from Trump’s unilateralism and his unpopular repudiation of the JCPOA, and avail itself of the economic dividends of the pact it was entitled to.

While the Europeans avowed that they were committed to the deal, the Rouhani administration, in a strategically misguided non-starter, violated the terms of the JCPOA, resumed uranium enrichment to levels the deal had proscribed, stopped shipping enriched uranium and heavy water to other JCPOA signatories, and reactivated its nuclear research and development program. This left the Europeans who wished to keep the JCPOA afloat in an awkward position.

Also, in order not to give the impression of being a vulnerable country that kowtows to US hegemony, Iran defiantly refused to engage in new negotiations with the Trump administration to resuscitate the JCPOA or reach a new agreement.

It’s true that on the surface, Tehran declined to be coerced and did not pull its punches, but the reality is that its economy has now hit rock bottom, and with a US dollar trading for as many as 290,000 rials and hyperinflation reaching unprecedented levels, Iran is in effect on the brink of an all-out social crisis.

Many pundits and observers have said the Islamic Republic has pinned its hopes on waiting out Trump until he is unseated by former US vice-president Joe Biden, who has explicitly signaled his interest in rejoining the Iran deal and revoking the sanctions in return for Tehran’s compliance with its JCPOA commitments.

Even so, Trump’s ditching the Iran deal has already cost Iran’s economy hundreds of billions of dollars – damage that cannot be compensated easily.

A conservative account by Iran’s president reveals the country has lost US$150 billion in revenues since Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. In just one instance, two contracts between Iran and plane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus aggregately worth $40 billion for the sale of 220 modern aircraft to Iranian airlines to revamp their aging fleets were invalidated altogether.

After the US pullout from the JCPOA, Iran was clearly bereft of a Plan B to preserve the deal, which had been lauded by the global community as a diplomatic breakthrough. It could have worked with the EU, Russia and China to succor its economy without reversing its commitments and once again stepping up its nuclear brinkmanship.

Alternatively, it could have opted for some limited talks with the Trump administration to see if there was room for making headway toward reviving the deal, and nobody would have called it feeble or submissive simply for sitting with the United States at the bargaining table.

But intransigence has its price, and the costs are being paid from the pockets of Iranian people. Now, with a fettered, disrupted economy, foreign investment has almost ground to a halt, oil exports bolstering the national economy have dried up, the prices of consumer goods have spiraled out of control, and people are scrambling to make ends meet.

Nobody knows who will replace President Rouhani in the 2021 polls, and what will happen if his successor is a hardliner. That said, it is crystal clear that he has missed important opportunities to fulfill his role as a savior, which many Iranians believed he was.

His speech to the UN General Assembly was testimony that the “diplomat sheikh” has thrown in the towel, admitting that the current economic downturn is inevitable and probably irreparable, particularly after he does not have the final say on the twists and turns of Iran’s foreign policy.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.