On Friday the 27th September, the president of the United States and his Iranian counterpart had a 15-minute phone talk, which signalled the first such high-level dialogue between these two countries for over 30 years. Since the Iranian Shah was deposed in 1979 by a radical Islamist revolution, relations have been ice-cold and aggressive.
So, how did this radical policy change by newly-elected Iranian President Rouhani come about? And what are the odds of this positive sign being followed up by meaningful, constructive talks that end the nuclear stalemate?
There are justified concerns about the prospects of these talks, as both presidents face severe obstacles at home, but let us first have a look at the reasons why the two countries are seeking a settlement at this precise moment.
Since his very first days in office, Obama has opened up the prospect of a rapprochement between America and Iran. In an address in 2009, he offered the promise of talks with states such as Iran on the condition that they they reneged on their belligerent stances towards the US. However, times have changed since 2009. The US has lost its ability to be the major power in the Middle East, and the Arab Spring has unsettled some of the Americans’ most trusted allies in the region.
The rise of fundamentalist groups in countries, such as Egypt, has become a problem for Israel and, by extension, its protector, the United States. Besides that, protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been a financial burden and a strategical disaster.
The most recent sign of American decline in power, though, has been Syria. Warnings have been issued for months, but only now has the United States been able to agree on a U.N. Resolution regarding Syria, and only on Russian terms. So, the rapprochement with Iran might be seen as an attempt to shorten the list of enemies in the region and to widen the group of possible geo-strategical allies. For Obama personally, it might also be an effort to live up to his perhaps premature Nobel Peace Prize.
On the Iranian side, the sanctions imposed on the country, which have crippled the economy and unleashed double-digit inflation, have been the most important factor in pushing the country towards the negotiating table. The younger Iranian generations, especially students, have elected Rouhani with a clear mandate to lead the country out of international isolation and rebuild the economy. One could argue, then, that both presidents have acted on pragmatic grounds out of a situation of weakness, a geo-strategical one for the United States and an economic weakness for the Iranian Republic. This does not preclude that this window of opportunity might bring about something positive.
Divides persist however, and will be difficult to bridge, despite the repeated promises by both leaders to aim for a quick resolution to the nuclear stalemate. Rouhani has told reporters that his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, will come to Geneva on 15th October for another round of nuclear talks with a concrete proposal to settle the issue. Obama has insisted that, in spite of severe obstacles, he ‘believe[s] we can reach a comprehensive solution’. To address the second question of the introduction as to whether this historic sign of entente will lead to successful nuclear negotiations, one has to outline the significant problems that exist on both sides.
First of all, both governments face extremist opposition at home. Although a minority in both countries, convincing these oppositions of a moderate proposal will be crucial for the success of the talks. In America, the powerful Jewish Lobby and Republican extremists will want to keep up American support for Israel and protect it from any Iranian harm. In Iran, Rouhani faces a much more difficult task in balancing between the hard-liners around the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the younger generations which push for more openness and more moderate politics.
So far, he has been able to maintain the Ayatollah’s support; in a speech given on 17th September he talked of ‘heroic flexibility’ in diplomacy. But all further diplomatic actions will undergo intense scrutiny by Ali Khamenei, who holds the ultimate power in the Iranian Constitution. On his return to Tehran on Saturday, Rouhani was met by supporters and opponents alike, while the latter were chanting ‘Death to America’. It remains to be seen whether Rouhani can satisfy this extremist minority while pursuing his moderate policy.
Second, the United States has to ensure that any concessions made in talks will be met by continued, sincere efforts by the Iranian government to stop any works on nuclear build-up. Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, will be wary of making the same mistake as with North Korea and their leader Kim Jong-Un, who has duped the international community only to make the United States lift some sanctions, while North Korea’s military continues building up its nuclear capability. Thus, American negotiators will want to be tough and retain their leverage through sanctions, before Iran has agreed to significant steps, such as signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and shown that it keeps its words.
So, how important has this historic phone talk been? Well, on the bright side, this has been one of the few good signs for the middle east for months, even years, after the fundamentalist rise and subsequent turmoil (or military coup) in Egypt, the reawakened terrorist waves in Iraq and the break-up of Syria with millions of refugees straining the neighbours’ ability to stay out of the conflict. However, symbolic actions do not suffice to settle the decades-long dispute between these two arch-rivals; meaningful action will have to follow this positive news.
On 15th October, when in Geneva the nuclear talks will start with a fresh Iranian proposal, we will all be smarter. I, for my part, want to believe in the truthfulness of Rouhani’s policy change and in his and Barack Obama’s determination to maintain this brave course in spite of extremist opposition in their respective countries.