international analysis and commentary

Washington and Tehran: toward rapprochement?


Capped by an unprecedented telephone conversation between the presidents of Iran and the United States – the first such contact since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 – a promising and surprising series of diplomatic exchanges increased the hopes that  US-Iran relations might shift toward constructive engagement. This would, in turn, facilitate a diplomatic resolution of the long-standing nuclear issue.

Since the empowerment of the new Iranian administration in August, the government’s representatives advanced a “charm offensive” toward the West and the United States, with newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani in the frontline. Rouhani, defined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, stated his intention to show Iran’s “true face” to the world, marking the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight years of government. In line with his electoral slogans, Rouhani renewed his commitment to improve relations with regional and international actors, engaging in “constructive dialogue” with the West and overcoming differences even with the US in order to find a diplomatic path to solve the nuclear dispute.

The US administration, signaling appreciation for the new rhetoric emerging from Tehran, emphasized the priority that diplomacy will be given in the near term in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly, US President Barack Obama also deliberately clarified that “regime change” is not the government’s goal when it comes to the Islamic Republic, whilst he recognized the country’s right to access peaceful nuclear energy. Obama’s statements, which followed an exchange of letters in recent weeks with Rouhani, indicated US readiness to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically, but also to discuss ways to prevent the Syrian conflict from threatening the two countries’ core interests. By welcoming Syria’s acceptance of the chemical weapons convention and reacting positively to the deal reached by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Iranian leadership signaled its potential constructive role in bringing about the deal which aims at dismantling Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

Given the converging interest in preventing radical Sunni groups from being empowered, Syria does represent an opportunity for Washington and Tehran to implement diplomacy and constructive engagement, and is likely to have driven the recent improvement of relations between the US and Iran.

During his UN speech, Obama announced that Secretary of State John Kerry will be in charge and directly involved in talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Such move follows Rouhani’s decision to move the nuclear dossier from the National Security Council, headed by the hardliner Saeed Jalili, to the foreign ministry, appointing Mohammad Javad Zarif, a US-educated and highly esteemed former ambassador to the UN, as Iran’s official in charge of the negotiating team. The change, which took place last month, reflects Rouhani’s desire to maintain full control over the nuclear dossier, but also to raise the negotiation level to that of foreign ministers, similarly to how talks between Iran and France, Germany and the United Kingdom were organized between 2003 and 2005, when Rouhani was chief nuclear negotiator.

Other positive signs have also materialized, such as a last-minute nuclear meeting (the first taking place since April) that brought together the foreign ministers of the E3+3 (Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the US) and Iran, rather than their respective political directors. Such meeting constituted the highest-level talk on Iran’s nuclear program in the past six years and was judged by all participants as particularly “positive and constructive”, both in tone and spirit. Foreign Minister Zarif, whose presentation of new possibilities for the advancement of nuclear talks was particularly appreciated, sat next to Kerry, with whom he subsequently held a thirty-minute one-on-one meeting, marking the highest level of encounter between an American and an Iranian foreign minister since 2007.

Following the high-level meeting at the UN, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and chair of the E3+3, Catherine Ashton, stated the need to “be very practical in translating political ambition into (…) effective work on the ground”, particularly referring to the need for Iran to respond to the confidence-building measure offered by the E3+3 in Almaty in February 2013. Ashton also announced that the next substantive nuclear talks are scheduled for October 15th in Geneva, signaling the desire of all parties to “jumpstart the process” and to fast-track the negotiations. Rouhani, who asked for a timetable to be included in the talks, stated his ambition to have a nuclear deal in a matter of “months, not years”, a timeframe which was confirmed by Ashton, Kerry and Zarif.

However, domestic resistance by hardliners both in the US and Iran could easily hamper the promising developments. For the time being, although Rouhani will certainly face some degree of confrontation with the country’s hardliners and those who are close to former nuclear negotiator Jalili, a staunch critic of a rapprochement with the US and of an agreement on the nuclear issue, he seems to be in a good position to defend domestically his diplomatic approach towards the US. Whilst his return to Tehran was met with protests condemning a US-Iran rapprochement, the number of people greeting him and welcoming diplomacy with the US was much higher. Most political forces and key members of the Iranian establishment, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have also approved of Rouhani’s stance so far, showing an unprecedented amount of support and unity. On September 18th, Khamenei, who spelled out the full empowerment of the Iranian president in advancing his own initiatives to finalize a nuclear deal, stated that Iran should demonstrate “heroic flexibility”, embracing diplomacy over militarism while not forgetting who its enemies are.

It remains to be seen the extent to which Obama will be able to overcome domestic resistance on the US side to his new approach on Iran, and whether he will convince a Congress that is traditionally hostile towards the Islamic Republic to give diplomacy a real chance.