By the end of last week the United States had still not made up its collective mind about the significance of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s remarkable diplomatic demarche in New York. At opposite extremes analysts in Washington were dubbing the visit a “charm offensive” on the one hand and a “new course,” on the other, contrasting views that point to major s differences of political opinion as to how the US should treat with Iran hereafter.
Rouhani has already been ‘milking’ the credit deriving from the new if fragile face that he has put on US/Iran relations. That having been said, it surely cannot be denied that President Rouhani has engineered the most significant shift in relations between the two countries since the toppling of the Shah of Iran in 1979.
Middle East watcher and New American Foundation Senior Fellow Steve Clemons took an extreme position labelling the Rouhani New York visit “an extraordinary moment.” Rapprochment with Iran, he said, “would be the biggest positive shift in global affairs since the end of the Cold War and the normalization of relations with China.” That may not be taking it too far.
It might also not be an overstatement to state that last week was the most significant week in US-Iran relations in more than thirty years and that it – from a foreign policy standpoint ‒ was also President Obama’s most satisfying one (when the UN Security Council breakthrough on the Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is added to Rouhani’s visit to New York) since his accession to the US presidency.
These, however, are ‘baby steps’ in a process that is yet to begin to evolve and will, in all likelihood, extend well beyond the Obama presidency.
In the week that Mr Rouhani took the US by storm the American and Iranian Foreign Ministers met and Presidents Obama and Rouhani spoke on the telephone. Contextually, these were monumental diplomatic achievements. Neither side could reasonably wish for more in such a short period given the complete tatters that had characterized relations between the two countries just a few weeks earlier. More than that, the rest of the international community would have welcomed the outcomes of the Rouhani visit to New York as a respite from the unrelenting military conflict and political tensions that have been emanating from the Middle East over the past two years.
As to who wants what and who stands to gain most from a thaw in US-Iran relations, there is evidence that both sides can reap considerable benefits. Tehran clearly wants to end the three-decade long estrangement with the US, and more particularly the economic sanctions imposed on account of the country’s nuclear programme.
From Washington’s perspective iron-clad guarantees from Iran regarding its disinterest in developing a nuclear capacity would be hugely comforting. More than that, significantly improved relations between Washington and Tehran would do stability in the Middle East a power of good even if this fails to quell Israel’s suspicions over what it believes to be Iran’s enduring hostile intentions towards the Jewish state.
Before the respective wish lists of Washington and Tehran can be pursued, however, the ‘feel good’ aura created in the wake of the Rouhani visit to New York must be supplanted by a less intoxicating atmosphere. That would require a healthy measure of mutual trust. Building trust between two countries that have exuded nothing but mutual and extreme hostility towards each other for more than a quarter of a century will take much more time than it took President Rouhani to “charm” the US. Of course, there is also the issue of a lack of any real guarantee that what began in New York a week ago ‒ the process towards arising at a position of mutual trust ‒ will not suddenly be derailed by some unfortunate, unforeseen occurrence. What the US, for example, would be mindful of, is the potential that the building of any new bridges with Iran might have for its relations with Saudi Arabia which perceives Iran as having hegemonic ambitions in the region. Even more significant would be the potential for a strain in the relationship between the US and Israel, which might even feel compelled to launch air strikes against Iran if it perceives a nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington as weak.
On the other hand some analysts appear to see a strong nuclear agreement between the US and Iran as a possible precursor to an end to Syria’s civil war.
At the end of his sojourn in New York President Rouhani would have returned toTehran feeling a sense of considerable foreign policy accomplishment but acutely mindful of both the magnitude of the broader mission that he has undertaken and the risks that inhere in the course of action which he articulated in New York. If he would have been unable to accomplish what he did in New York last week without the explicit blessings of the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni and the country’s religious leadership, there is evidence that influential conservative forces inside the country are opposed to any kind of fence-mending with ‘The Great Satan.’ When he arrived back in Tehran last weekend President Rouhani would have noted that his welcoming party included a contingent that did not approve of his itinerary in New York. Their protest could also not have occurred without the approval of Iran’s religious leadership, a sign, perhaps, that Mr Rouhani has already begun to walk a political and diplomatic tightrope.
If President Rouhani is serious about mending fences with the US he must first face and overcome several layers of likely obstacles, not least of which is the retention of the favour of the religious hierarchy and the conservative political groups in Tehran. More than that, he will need to deliver guarantees in Tehran that nuclear negotiations with Washington will not ultimately have the effect of compromising Itan’s national security and leaving the country vulnerable to a nuclear-armed Israel. These will not be easy guarantees to deliver.
One of the earliest tests of the robustness of the new course is likely to surface in Geneva next month when Iran sits down with the permanent members of the UN Security Council to engage in negotiations over its nuclear programme. That test, President Obama has said, could result in “relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place” and “could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Western media reports on the Rouhani New York visit have been, for the most part, upbeat, avoiding the customary cynicism and ridicule that customarily attends their accounts. The visit has been labelled “a benchmark in the course of new administration’s efforts to restructure and renovate Iran’s relations with the world,” while Rouhani’s speech at the UN General Assembly was labelled “brilliant and promising,” all of which, of course, points to the somewhat rose-tinted spectacles through which President Rouhani’s visit to New York is being seen in its immediate aftermath. There are those who will contend – and, arguably, justifiably so, that the significance of the visit can only really be objectively judged after we are over the hurdle of the nuclear talks between Iran and the big five powers. That may be so, but even then the significance of President Rouhani’s carefully orchestrated initiative to change the face of his country’s relations with Washington rates as nothing less than a ground-breaking feat of diplomacy.