The Iranian government, preparing for Hassan Rouhani’s première at the UN, see the new president’s involvement in the 68th session of the General Assembly as a crucial moment in the 35-year history of Iranian diplomacy following the Islamic revolution. Rouhani has already taken stronger diplomatic steps in the past few months than his predecessor took during the whole two terms of his presidency. For the time being, he is successfully managing to play a pioneering role in advancing Tehran’s new foreign-policy initiatives. Iran is showing the world a new diplomacy that has received the blessing of the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, for its «heroic flexibility», particularly with regard to the United States…
The question of to what extent the Iranian president can afford to be «heroically flexible», and how far he can go towards making concessions to Washington, so far remains unanswered. The presidents did not have a face-to-face meeting at the session of the General Assembly. Rouhani himself allegedly refused to take part in this type of dialogue, considering it to be a premature and flippant step, although the idea of a fleeting and informal meeting had originally come from Iran. America had been slow to respond but then agreed and was eventually refused by Iran, after which came Tehran’s next initiative – a telephone conversation. Rather than corridor diplomacy, Iran has deployed telephone diplomacy.
At the request of Iran, Obama was still the one to call Rouhani, although at exactly the moment when the Iranian president was on his way to the airport to return home from New York. Following 35 years of silence, the presidents attempted to use the 15-minute telephone conversation to give impetus to working together. The telephone conversation immediately made headlines all over the world and became a sensation in political and intelligence circles.
Commenting on the conversation, Obama hinted at a potential settlement of Iran’s nuclear issue, although he noted that there would be quite a few obstacles along the way.
One of the obstacles, and the biggest problem for Rouhani, is not the international community but his opponents within Iran itself. For those who keep in mind that the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not the most important but the second most important person in government, official Tehran has confirmed that Rouhani and his government have authority from spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to conduct negotiations on any issues affecting the security of Iran. This reminder was more addressed to Rouhani’s political opponents in his own country, however, who on the eve of his trip to New York warned that it was only reformists seeking to live out the rest of their days in America who wanted to settle differences between Iran and the US. Although Iranian soldiers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps do not have any intention as yet of interfering in Rouhani’s diplomacy, neither are they hiding their own negative attitude towards Iran’s overhasty diplomatic steps with regard to Washington.
It is a case of two opposing positions within Iran’s political elite. Anti-American tendencies with the arrival of the new government were overshadowed by the open foreign policy, and the world witnessed Tehran’s new diplomacy with a clear focus on normalising relations with the United States and leading countries in the European Union. It is becoming a leitmotif of Iranian diplomacy, which is aimed at bringing about a speedy withdrawal of Western sanctions in exchange for concessions. The search for compromises and mutually-acceptable solutions for Iran is not promising to be easy, however: America still sees sanctions as an irreplaceable attribute of American influence.
Assessing Iran’s latest diplomatic initiatives, the majority of American senators believe them to be nothing but pretty words. In their opinion: «Iran is not a friend whose word can be taken as a promise». While waiting for the meeting that never took place between Obama and Rouhani, the American president was reminded of the rigidity of Congress’ position which was outlined in a letter dated 2 August and signed by 76 senators. The document specifies four strategic requirements of US policy with regard to Iran: maintaining and strengthening sanctions, demonstrating a credible threat of the use of force, a commitment to the public’s position on the inadmissibility of Tehran possessing nuclear weapons, and an expression of openness to negotiations. Amongst those who signed the letter is Senator John McCain, who is advising Obama that on no account should the pressure on Iran by way of sanctions be reduced just at the time when the Iranian government has become seriously aware of their paralysing effect on its economy.
Summarising the position of Congress, it should be noted that at the current time, an absolute majority of congressmen believe that withdrawing or weakening sanctions against Iran is an «extremely counterproductive» decision. In addition, official Washington has also not forgotten about the claims that remain in the wings of Iran’s nuclear issue. This refers to the observance of human rights and violations of society’s political freedoms, Hezbollah’s all-out support in opposing Israel, and the military cooperation with Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict.
Until recently, Iran and Syria were fighting the US from the same trench, but now the West wants Tehran to give up attempts to keep Assad in power. In response, Rouhani is demonstrating an interest in settling the Syrian crisis, putting an end to the civil war and guaranteeing the right of the Syrian people to self-determination. Iran believes that the war in Syria is not a war between the opposition and Assad’s troops, but a war between the Syrian government and terrorists who have come to Syria from abroad, from where they are receiving support and arms.
At the session of the General Assembly, Iran backed the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria in support of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ plan aimed at destroying Syria’s chemical arsenal. Incidentally, it was Iran that inserted the point in the OPCW’s decision calling on all countries to join the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical weapons, and the US supported it. Moreover, Tehran is planning on cooperating with Moscow in the Syrian settlement and is willing to accept an invite to the international Geneva-2 conference to discuss the Syrian issue, as long as there are not going to be any preconditions. But there are.
The West wants Iran to agree that change is needed in Syria, and that the country will never return to the old rule of the Alawites. This is exactly what French president François Hollande was trying to achieve during his meeting with Rouhani in New York when he spoke of Iran’s contribution to settling the Syrian crisis through political means. These talks were the first time in eight years that the presidents had had a face-to-face meeting. The fact that the meeting took place is highly valued in Tehran, the event fits in completely with Iran’s new diplomacy and with reference to it, one can talk about the first step towards reestablishing relations with Europe, but the condition put forward immediately brought the emerging future to a standstill. Allowing such an alteration to the balance of power in Syria would not be a concession for Tehran, but a defeat. Iran is not prepared to «exchange» its most loyal and its only ally in the Arab world for involvement in Geneva-2. To be more precise, for Rouhani to agree to this kind of suggestion from the West would equate to political suicide. After all, it is no secret that members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have always concerned themselves with Iranian policy in Syria and Lebanon. In this regard, the «heroic flexibility» of the new diplomacy will not be overlooked. Which is why Tehran is also opposing any preconditions for its involvement in Geneva-2. It is quite possible that Russia will be the only country supporting this position.
While on the subject of Russia’s place in Iran’s new diplomacy, it is impossible not to notice that Tehran has become somewhat shy of talking about its partnership with Moscow aloud. One could even get the impression that the new faces in Iran’s government are embarrassed to publicly acknowledge the progress of its joint measures with Russia in preventing America’s military aggression against Syria. At the margins of the UN General Assembly, Russia defended Iran’s right to a peaceful atom, advancing Russia’s initiative to ease the sanctions regime. At a meeting in New York between the six mediators on Iran’s nuclear issue, Lavrov and Zarif held the first face-to-face meeting at which ministers «quickly found a common language» and their talks were «rather encouraging». Against this background, there are voices coming out of Tehran about the fact that in recent years, Russia has repeatedly played the «Iranian card» in its dealings with Americans in order to obtain concessions from the West, which seems to be extremely unjust. There is also speculation to the effect that during the years of the toughest sanctions imposed on Iran by the West, Moscow allegedly derived a fair amount of economic benefit – and that is with a 40-45 percent fall in sales volume in 2012 which barely reached 2.4 billion dollars. The essence of views like these is the desire to present Russia as a brake to the as yet still stationary Iran-America locomotive.
So who exactly are Iran’s allies in the «heroic flexibility» of its new diplomacy? It turns out that it is those countries whose access to the Iranian market was blocked by US sanctions. To begin with, these include countries in the European Union who announced an oil embargo on Iran last year and then, just to be sure, announced another similar full-scale blockade of the gas sector. According to some opinions in Iran, EU countries are now doing «everything they can to try and mediate in the establishment of links between America and Iran in order to ease their own way out of the economic crisis».
Tehran’s new diplomatic initiatives hold strategic significance for Iran. One could talk about their focus on changing the entire geopolitical architecture of the Middle East. However, the likelihood of an Iranian-American rapprochement, even within the framework of Iran’s «heroic flexibility», is relatively low. From Washington’s point of view, there is currently no chance of fundamentally improving relations with Iran without upsetting its balance of cooperation with Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as other countries in the Gulf region. In order to tread the road to the White House, Tehran is still going to have to normalise its relations with these countries. As far as Israel is concerned, however, this kind of opportunity for Iran’s new diplomacy so far remains beyond the reach of what is acceptable.