With another round of nuclear negotiation talks taking place in Geneva between the P5+1 and Iran, there is a relatively pleasant sense of optimism that was devoid during previous talks. Iran’s willingness to negotiate on fronts that were once deemed unapproachable seem to serve as an opening whereby common ground can be found in hopes of arriving at a deal in regards to Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities. Iran’s new president has struck a long-desired chord with the West so as to reduce tension and war cries directed toward his country. It is oddly pleasant to see the president of Iran get abundant media airtime and coverage for amicable and conciliatory gestures as opposed to divisive and destructive diatribes which were a hallmark of Iran under its former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Be that as it may, the recent interest in President Rouhani is not unwarranted or marked by naiveté. As evidenced by the United Nations’ hoopla encompassing Rouhani, there is a stark difference in demeanor and message he wishes to display for the international community and the one that has been emanated from Tehran for the past eight years.
Six months ago, it was inconceivable to even dream about a normalization of relations between Iran and the United States and even more imprudent to think about the likelihood of a handshake between the nations’ two presidents, yet if last month is a litmus test for what is to come, both of these once far-off notions could soon become a legitimate reality.
What has taken place in the political arena in Tehran is nothing short of remarkable. In a span of a little over two months, Iran has repositioned itself from the vilified pariah of the international community to the trump man who, quite realistically, is offering the cards of ameliorating much of the region’s toughest crises. This rapid reconfiguration of Iran’s image in the Western world has already paid dividends with the promise of more to follow.
President Rouhani has situated himself and his administration in the best possible position of brokering a deal with the Western powers, most notably the United States, in hopes of building confidence for much needed sanctions relief. By all accounts, Rouhani has convinced Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to permit Iran to engage in meaningful negotiations with the West over the latter’s nuclear concerns as it pertains to Iran. While many, who oppose such talks, dismiss them as nothing more than stalling measures point to Iran’s previous reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, as a model that is being replayed by the Islamic Republic once again, the truth of the matter is that Rouhani already has the major component Khatami always yearned for in his presidency – the Supreme Leader’s backing.
Khatami, much like Rouhani, was elected president running on an identical social and political platform that promoted openness and freedom domestically in addition to cooperation and negotiations internationally. Though during Khatami’s tenure, every time his team entered negotiations with the West, they did so at a weakened position for it was widely acknowledged that Khamenei was not on board. Khatami went so far as to highlight this point of dissimilarity between himself and Rouhani in a September 23rd Op-Ed in The Guardian and warned the world powers not to mistake his political shortcomings as a harbinger for dealings with Rouhani.
Realizing his potentially momentary strength, Rouhani has implemented a two-pronged approach to international negotiations which, in his calculations, will bolster his chances of attaining a resolution internationally in a manner that will alleviate Iran from its reeling economic woes. Part one of Rouhani’s foreign policy reshuffle is the reallocation of nuclear negotiation responsibilities from the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) to the office of the Foreign Ministry which further indicates he is genuine about cooperation and conciliation. Whereas this move may seem like nothing more than a bureaucratic jockeying of power inside Iran, there is much more than what ostensibly meets the eye. The Supreme National Security Council is a body of which Rouhani himself was a member in various capacities for 16 years. More importantly, this Council is a body that is generally aligned, very closely, with the thoughts and policy beliefs of the Supreme Leader who has the final say in all state matters. In consequence, taking the cherished and dignified nuclear negotiation power away from the Council in favor of the more moderate Foreign Ministry speaks volumes to the moderate path Iran wishes to pursue in hopes of conclusively resolving the senescent nuclear impasse.
Part two of Rouhani’s political transformation is the appointment of his American-educated interlocutor Mohammad Javad Zarif to lead the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zarif’s appointment to this post is a gauged move that serves a dual purpose for Iran. It resonates positively with the world powers who flank Iran at the nuclear negotiation table every so often. Zarif is a man who is respected among diplomatic circles, particularly the United States, for his part in negotiating and securing the freedom of American hostages held in Lebanon in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Although there was no countering benevolence assured from the American side, Zarif has remained steadfast in his approach, as he always sought to amend strained relations between his country and the United States. An ancillary product of Zarif’s position is his ability to relay Iran’s position directly to the American public in ways rarely pursued by Iranian officials. Zarif, a Ph.D. wielding and well-spoken representative of Iran, instantly augments Iranian credibility when conducting interviews with his expansive English vocabulary to Western media outlets. Naturally, it is hard for the average American or European to take in, with impartiality, the translation of a foreign looking bearded man from a country that has been so vociferously berated for decades. However, with Zarif’s ascension to Foreign Minister, the world gets to see and hear eloquently spoken words from a well-groomed representative of Iran. This, as foolish as it may sound, has already shown to be succeeding.
President Rouhani’s welcomed change in tone, as compared to that of his predecessor, accorded him the prospect of a face-to-face meeting and a handshake with President Obama, as first proposed by this author in an article, New President, New Hope. While many officials were relentlessly pushing to get both men into a backroom meeting for what would have amounted to the photo opportunity of the decade, President Rouhani’s meticulous calculations deduced that such a meeting was too soon, too complicated and too problematic at such a juncture. Deciding to forgo that hallmark opportunity for what turned out to be a less formal 15 minute telephone call with President Obama was determined to be the more cautious path. Regardless of the action taken, rivals back in Iran would have, and did, slam Rouhani as a sellout, in effect rendering his choice a lose-lose proposition. The Supreme Leader seemingly considered the act as “not proper,” further adding to the complications of any high-stake decisions Rouhani makes.
Walking a political tightrope, Rouhani is graciously keeping all skeptical parties at bay with his measured political undertakings. Granted the opportunity to shake hands with President Obama was an ace card he was wise not to play too early. Carrying this in his pocket now, Rouhani has demonstrated his diplomatic capabilities to the world and is primed to use it as leverage with all factions, domestic and international, who wish to see him fail. This realization deeply irks Israel which has, for so many years under the auspices of Benjamin Netanyahu, tried to portray Iran as the gravest threat to the world’s security and a regime led by mad men who are hell-bent on wide-scale destruction. Yet, when the world sees a country led by a president who repeatedly vows that “[Iran has] never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and [is] not going to do so” and successively backs up his insistence with set dates and venues in hopes of “restoring international confidence” in Iran’s nuclear program, as evidenced by this week’s P5+1 Geneva talks, the inconsistencies among Israel’s exaggerated bemoaning begin to surface. With the international community starting to decipher Israel’s hackneyed anti-Iran propaganda, the prospects for Iranian inclusion into the community of nations grows ever more likely.
President Rouhani and President Obama’s nascent relationship comes at a historically important time for the United States. Crippled by political infighting and a weakened state of influence abroad, the United States could surely use a helping hand in stabilizing Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria in addition to finally delivering on the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, for all of which Iran holds the key. Iran and the United States are moving in a direction of potentially good-natured standing. All parties need not be overly zealous for they have been down this road before with all sides’ mishaps contributing, at one point or another, to talks breaking down. Those in search of a one-day détente must wait longer before they can profess a return to diplomatic normalcy.
For what it is worth, there is a flickering flame of promise that was absent in the Khatami administration that must be diligently guarded so as not to extinguish. The historical impediments must be removed, the diplomatic channels must be reopened, beleaguered talking points must be discarded and the pervasive cold surrounding US-Iran relations must be reheated. Sanctions are biting, the Supreme Leader is on board and Rouhani has a mandate. So maybe, just maybe, Hassan can be a hero.