TEHRAN — Dozens of protesters hurled eggs and at least one shoe at President Hassan Rouhani as he returned to Tehran on Saturday after a groundbreaking phone call with President Obama and other outreach to the West at an annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.
The protest — coming even as supporters gathered at the airport to cheer his diplomatic outreach — quickly laid bare the political fissures in Iran over whether to engage with the United States and the challenges Rouhani and his aides face as they try to have international sanctions over the country’s nuclear program lifted.
Rouhani was standing in his car, waving through the sunroof as he passed supporters, when opponents began to pelt the vehicle. Security guards scrambled to shield the president with an umbrella as other protesters blocked the road by praying on the pavement.
“Long live Rouhani, man of change!” the president’s backers shouted, as a small police contingent struggled to control the crowd of about 200 that seemed mostly to be of Rouhani supporters. The hard-liners responded by shouting, “Our people are awake and hate America!”
Security guards eventually pulled Rouhani back inside his car as it sped off, leaving supporters and opponents behind, some pushing and shoving one another. One protester was almost run over after he threw himself in front of Rouhani’s car.
Iranians hoping for changes to end their country’s isolation have expressed excitement over the sudden turn of events last week, as Rouhani and his aides became the talk of the UN General Assembly.
The president’s more open stance is widely believed to have the support of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — at least for now — but it remains unclear whether powerful hard-line factions are ready for better relations with the United States after decades of animosity.
Analysts expressed surprise that the protest at the airport was allowed, given tight controls over public gatherings, and it raised the possibility that some in the country’s opaque political hierarchy were sending a message of displeasure over last week’s sudden turn of events.
“This shows that those factions that do not want diplomatic flexibility and normalized relations with the world have started to organize themselves,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the government.
The demonstrators said their protest was spontaneous, but such gatherings are often orchestrated in Iran, and the number of police and plainclothes security guards sent to control the crowd Saturday was unusually small.
The Iranian president addressed the question of why he had not met in person with Obama.
“A meeting between the two presidents needs some preparation, and since the ground was not prepared, this meeting did not take place,” Fars News agency quoted Rouhani as saying.
Fars reported that the foreign minister would go before Parliament this week to explain the diplomatic process that led to the phone call. Hard-liners are likely to watch closely for who reached out first.
For Israel and Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Obama’s historic telephone call was the geopolitical equivalent of discovering your best friend flirting with your main rival.
Though few nations have a greater interest in Obama’s promise to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, his overtures to Rouhani were greeted with alarm in Israel and in other Middle East capitals allied with the United States. They worry about Iran’s sincerity, and fear that Obama’s desire for a diplomatic deal will only buy Iran time to continue a march toward building a nuclear weapon.
But beyond that, the prospect of even a nonnuclear Iran — strengthened economically by the lifting of sanctions, and emboldened politically by renewed relations with Washington — is seen as a dire threat that could upend the dynamics in this volatile region.
“There is a lot of suspicion and even paranoia about some secret deal between Iran and America,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who is close to the royal family. “My concern is that the Americans will accept Iran as it is — so that the Iranians can continue their old policies of expansionism and aggression.”