Sitting back comfortably in what many of his fellow Iranian officials regard as enemy territory, President Hassan Rohani was seen laughing aloud and clapping during a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The moment — on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 24 — was captured by photographers and widely shared on social media.
Photo du Jour Late Extra: Prime Minister @BorisJohnson meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the UN General Assembly in New York. By Stefan Rousseau/PA
Some claimed it highlighted the success of Rohani’s diplomatic efforts there, where the Iranian president promoted a “coalition for hope” or “Hormuz peace endeavor” to maintain peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region. Tehran has been blamed by Washington for a series of attacks on oil tankers in the region as well as on key oil facilities in Saudi Arabia — charges that Iran denies — as part of what some suspect is Tehran’s response to a U.S. oil embargo following last year’s decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw from a 2015 deal that traded sanctions relief for curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities.
But critics responded to the photo by saying that a shared laugh with Johnson, whose government along with France and Germany has blamed Iran for the September 14 Saudi attacks, is a sign of weakness and surrender.
“This image shows nothing but strength and confidence,” Iran-based analyst Pooria Asteraky said on Twitter. “A power rooted in the resistance and patience of Iranians has emerged in the president’s triumphant gesture,” he added in reference to Iranian officials’ stated “policy of maximum resistance” in the face of Washington’s campaign of “maximum pressure.”
Rohani’s negotiation of the 2015 nuclear deal and efforts to introduce minor reforms have made him a whipping boy for Iran’s conservatives, many of whom opposed any thaw in relations with the West.
Hard-line documentarist Ali Sadrinia shared a different take on the photo, citing Western accusations that Iranians were behind the attacks on Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities.
“Boris Johnson is saying: ‘Aha! The phenomenon that whatever disaster we bring to their country, he comes and sits with us and laughs. It hasn’t even been 24 hours since we issued a statement saying that the attack on Aramco was Iran’s work. But look how happy he is,'” Sadrinia said on Twitter.
There was more criticism among hard-line media, including Jamnews, which said Rohani laughing alongside Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron was “beyond the normal and diplomatic behaviors.”
The outsized interest in the photo prompted an explanation from Rohani adviser Hesamedin Ashena, who said the Iranian president had asked about the U.K. Supreme Court’s ruling that Johnson’s suspension of Parliament was unlawful and that Johnson had responded by saying that he’d handle it.
A video of the meeting posted online showed Johnson inviting Rohani to London or “indeed to Glasgow, which I think you know!” Rohani, who studied at Glasgow Caledonian University in the 1990s, reacts with a laugh.
Despite the light public moment, reports said the Iranian president expressed regret during the meeting at Britain, France, and Germany having held Tehran responsible for the Saudi attacks while also criticizing Britain for not helping Iran bypass U.S. sanctions and reap the economic benefits of the 2015 nuclear deal.
For his part, Johnson had called for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager for Thomson Reuters Foundation, and other dual nationals imprisoned in Iran while also raising concern “about Iran’s destabilizing activity in the region,” according to a statement by a Johnson spokesperson.
Johnson and Macron were said to have pressed Rohani to meet with Trump, with the French president saying that not meeting with the U.S. president could be a lost opportunity.
But in his media interviews and his September 25 speech to the General Assembly, Rohani reiterated Tehran’s position that it won’t negotiate with the United States as long as it remains under economic sanctions.
“Our response to talks under pressure is, ‘No,'” Rohani said during his speech, accusing the United States of “merciless economic terrorism.”
Playing on speculation that he and Trump might meet during the General Assembly and critics’ suggestions that Trump is sometimes more interested in photo ops than substance, Rohani had told the UN audience, “A memento photo is the last stop in negotiations, not the first one.” The line won him praise from some Iranian conservatives, including the editor of the ultra-hardline daily Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari, who said the speech was a combination of “dignity, wisdom, and goodwill.”
The daily Javan, affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), featured Rohani’s “no” to negotiations under pressure on its front page and said that, unlike Trump’s “aggressive” speech, Rohani’s focused on the “realities” of U.S. and European behavior.
Trump, who addressed the General Assembly on September 24, called Iran’s “repressive regime…one of the greatest security threats facing peace-loving nations.” He also suggested that the two countries could get along if Tehran changed course, saying that “many of America’s closest friends today were once our greatest foes.”
Amid Rohani and his delegation’s trip to New York for the UN meeting, the Trump administration stepped up its pressure on Tehran by announcing sanctions on five Chinese nationals and six entities for transferring oil to Iran. The United States also announced a ban on immigrant or nonimmigrant U.S. visas for senior Iranian officials and their family members.
- Golnaz EsfandiariGolnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with RFE/RL.