Rouhani’s Presence in Davos

Written by ASL19 researchers for the Iran Media Program

President Hassan Rouhani took center stage at the annual Davos World Economic Forum, where he launched a new diplomatic charm offensive, his second since the UN General Assembly last September. This offensive aimed to woo Western business executives, including CEOs of multinational oil companies, to return to Iran and invest in an economy battered by international sanctions and years of gross mismanagement. 

Successfully pulling Iran out of international isolation and reviving its economy largely hinges on Rouhani’s political dexterity and ability to maneuver the labyrinth of power corridors in Iran. Various factions have their own agenda, and some groups view a rapprochement with the West as a direct assault on their economic interests. Additionally, any Western investment goals can only come to fruition when sanctions against Iran are lifted. Rouhani’s appearance at the World Economic Forum sparked varied reactions from Iranian media outlets, illustrating the Rouhani administration’s objectives and challenges in positioning Iran as a global player.

The daily Iran, owned and published by the Islamic Republic of Iran News Agency (IRNA), focused on the investments sought by the Rouhani team in Davos considering the trip a success. Quoting Bijan Zangeh, Iran’s oil Minister, Iran reported that the world’s leading energy companies expressed a readiness to return to Iran and invest in its energy sector. It also quoted officials who said that in Davos, Iran sought a total of $217 billion dollars, $110 billion in the energy sector, $75 billion in petrochemicals, and $32 billion in railroad and other industries. Painting a positive picture of Rouhani’s presence in Davos, Iran underscored Rouhani’s realistic representation of Iran’s economic capabilities and potentials as the trip’s key success. 

The hardline conservative daily Kayhan offered a more negative picture of Iran’s efforts in Davos, refraining from reporting on the economic objectives of the trip. Kayhan instead turned its attention to what it described as Rouhani’s optimism on re-opening the U.S. embassy in Iran, and John Kerry’s remarks that the U.S. would never allow Iran to operate the Arak nuclear reactor and enrich uranium there. According to Kayhan, Kerry claimed success in Davos in terms of curtailing Iran’s nuclear program and turning back the clock on the country’s development of a bomb. Labeling Kerry’s remarks as “arrogant,” Kayhan criticized Rouhani for discussing the possibility of re-opening the U.S. embassy in Tehran and not focusing on Kerry’s criticism of the Islamic Republic. 

Taking a more neutral position, the online journal Iranian Diplomacy, which is close to Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, looked at factors that have led to the current state of Iran’s foreign policy. One editorial piece concentrated on former president Mohammad Khatami’s reform era and his efforts at the time to resolve Iran’s nuclear crisis and attract foreign investment into the country. The editorial argued that Rouhani faces similar tasks; however, the Rouhani administration has a narrower window of opportunity to pull Iran out of international isolation, revive its economy, and keep hardliners at bay before they run out of patience. 

According to Iranian Diplomacy, in order to reach a final settlement over the nuclear issue, Rouhani and his dynamic foreign minister Javad Zarif will most likely have to make concessions to world powers, which could easily pit them against hardliners in Iran. Rouhani therefore must take advantage of his narrow window of opportunity while walking a fine line with respect to Iran’s domestic politics. 

In a sharp contrast to other Iranian media outlets, Iranian Diplomacy also covered the views of Iranian-Americans tracking Iranian affairs. The editorial quoted Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University, who stated that Rouhani was well aware of Khatami’s past efforts and high-ranking Iranian officials’ sensitivities regarding the nuclear issue. Quoting Karim Sadjadpour at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the editorial emphasized the importance of presenting a united Iranian approach for resolving the nuclear crisis. 

Rouhani’s trip to Davos is part of a major push by Iran to educate powerful business leaders about Iran’s changing political and business dynamics, laying the groundwork for the day when sanctions against the country are lifted. The trip also reflects the current administration’s determination to close a rocky chapter in Iranian politics and foreign policy which has been characterized by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, regional tensions, an economic nose-dive, double-digit inflation, evaporation of foreign investment, and declining standards of living.  

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