Iran-US Relationship: First Signs of Thaw?

Iran-US Relationship: First Signs of Thaw?

There is a chance US and Iranian officials will meet each other at the coming United Nations General Assembly session, including a meeting at top level between President Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani. The bilateral tensions are running high but the event may become a turning point for the relations. Not a single US president has met his Iranian counterpart since the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979. The diplomatic ties between Washington and Tehran were severed on April 7 1980. 

Since Rouhani came to power the state leaders made the first step to normalization by exchanging letters this September. Obama promised not to hinder the development of Iranian nuclear program in case its peaceful purpose is proven. The US President does not promise the process will run smoothly. Still Rouhani saw this small shift in the US position as a chance for «big future» calling on his US counterpart to act in accordance with national interests and not giving in to outside pressure. This news gives ground to talk about the first signs of thaw in the relationship between the United States and Iran. 

The US says it is ready for contacts with Rouhani and wants to find a peaceful solution to the nuclear program on the basis of mutual respect. The Iranian reaction was more that unexpected. In contrast to widely spread opinion that an Iranian president has limited freedom of action in taking strategic foreign policy decisions, Iran’s supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delegated to Rouhani the authority to hold direct talks with the United States on the nuclear issue. This is the first time the leader of Iran allowed a president be independent in handling the problem. This step corroborates fully the consistency of Iranian policy and the fact that Iran is serious in its intention to achieve a breakthrough on the nuclear issue. 

The delegation of the nuclear issue to the Foreign Ministry was the first important step of the new government. Now the Iranian team at the talks will be headed by Foreign Minister. It had been unthinkable before the new government came to power. Even after Rouhani was elected as President the pool of candidates for the position of the head of the delegation was limited to heads of law enforcement agencies and the retinue of spiritual leader Khamenei. Back then Iran showed to the world that the «pro-Western» course of Rouhani is not personal initiative but rather the policy defined by the spiritual head of state that sanctioned the delegation of the nuclear issue to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from the Supreme Council for National Security. It is easy to guess that the decision took into account the opinion of Western counterparts who pin their hopes for success on the personality of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Indeed, the Zarif’s career path is not usual for a contemporary Iranian politician making him the right person in the eyes of the West. Aged 53, he studied international relations at San Francisco State University and attended the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and in 1988 obtained a PhD in international law and policy. Zarif was Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for ten years (1992-2002) and then served as Iran’s Ambassador to United Nations, whose functions included informal contacts between Iranian leadership and the US administration. 

He was kept out of spotlight holding minor diplomatic positions during the tenure of Ahmadinejad, but then, as the country adopted the new foreign policy course, his ability to understand the nuances of US foreign policy and speak the same language with the Western counterparts came in handy and moved him to the top. Indeed, the world is what you make it. The time for light-headed belligerent slogans and provocative statements has gone; Rouhani does not shy away from talking about hard social and economic plight of the country and admits that the Western sanctions make Iranians destitute of basic everyday life needs.

As a result of different types of sanctions Iran faced recession in 2012 for the first time in 20 years, in the first quarter of this year the budget obligations were fulfilled only 45 percent, the oil revenue dropped from 95 billion to 69 billion. The people’s expectations are high, so the new President and his government should prove their ability to move the country out of the crisis in a short period of time. The further confrontation with the United States, which has been an obstacle of economic development, has grown to become a threat to Iranian regime. 

In this context, the Iranian leadership, including the top spiritual leader Khamenei, understands it’s becoming dangerous to go on testing the enormous patience of Iranian people. At least, it is justified to state that even the Rouhani’s political opponents do not ostracize the steps aimed at mitigating the consequences of economic sanctions anymore, no matter it’s a deviation from the traditional foreign policy that runs against tradition. The Iranian parliament, viewed by many as conservative, said yes to Foreign Minister Zarif in the 81,6% vote of confidence giving green light to Iran’s return to the West, something the Iranian economy can hardly make it without, as proven by practice. Those who deal with foreign policy in Iran do not limit their expectations to creating a positive image of Islamic Republic of Iran in the United States and the West in general. Tehran unambiguously demonstrates its readiness to make concessions, including such purely internal matters as the issue of human rights being constantly accused of the violations by the United States. The government of Rouhani had promised to free political prisoners from jails and it delivered on its word a few days ago, right before his going to the United States for take part in the session of United Nations General Assembly. Mohsen Aminzadeh, former deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, was among the freed eleven opposition dissidents. He was jailed for the activities that allegedly posed threat to the country’s national security. Talking to Revolution Guards the day before Aminzadeh was set free, top spiritual leader Ali Khamenei said he was not against diplomacy. This way he expressed support for the President and let know Iran was ready for talks with the West. We have no doubts this step should be construes as a sign that Iran is ready for direct talks with the United States. 

It was not a big thing to foresee the reaction of the White House. Washington welcomed the liberation of political prisoners, as was expected in Tehran. The US saw it as a tangible sign of changes going on in the country after Rouhani won the election. United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon met Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Zarif in New York and expressed his endorsement for the decision to free the political prisoners. There are other signs on readiness for direct talks with the United States coming from Tehran. 

Rouhani followed the example of Russian President Putin with op-ed, he wrote an article for the Washington Post calling on the leaders of all nations to stand up together to face global threats and promised constructive engagement with the entire world to meet the challenges. According to him, a constructive diplomatic approach does not mean a refusal of rights – it implies a dialogue with counterparts on the basis of mutual respect to address the common problems and achievement of common goals. In his recent NBC interview, Rouhani said Iran will never develop nuclear weapons and that he has the clout to make a deal with the West on the disputed atomic program, «In its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority». Asked whether Iran would ever build a nuclear weapon, Rouhani noted that the country has repeatedly pledged that «under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever». «We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and we are not going to do so», he said. «We solely are looking for peaceful nuclear technology».

The US State Secretary and the Secretary General of NATO greeted the statements by President of Iran. At that, neither the United States, nor the European Union considers the possibility of lifting sanctions against Iran. The diplomatic efforts of Iran aimed at becoming again a full-fledged member of international society have just begun. There is a little chance for Obama-Rouhani meeting at the United Nations General Assembly session. But even a passing handshake can launch the process of moving the bilateral relations away from the deadlock. At any rate, this year the President of Iran is the one to capture attention at the General Assembly. His address scheduled to take place on Tuesday, September 24, is expected globally with great interest. 

Tags: Iran  Middle East  US  Obama  Rouhani