Will the Two Leaders please stand up?

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Prabhat Singh's picture

So what if they did not face each other directly? So what if they didn’t shake hands, or as some had dreamt, hug? Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani might not have made the world (excluding Israel) smile, but they surely have managed to bring a sigh of relief to many. What was “too complicated”1 to allow a brief tete-e-tete between them is difficult to wrap one’s head around, but the unimaginable camaraderie between the two leaders- stamped by their exchange of reconciliatory letters, and a direct phone conversation in a space of over three decades2- has finally broken the ice between the two countries for the first time since the 1979 Revolution. Given the acrimonious relations between Iran and America since the overthrow of Shah’s regime, the current ebb in belligerence and the resultant round of negotiations over nuclear energy represent one of the most remarkable metamorphoses since the fall of the Berlin wall.

In a flurry of measures, all seemingly intent at presenting goodwill, the Iranian President has offered a unique opportunity in world politics, one that could vanish if not capitalized on. In fact, in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post3, Rouhani specifically urged the US President to seize the opportunity presented by his re-election. Using cautious and slightly convoluted terminology, Iranian President made offers of cooperation mixed with dashes of national pride, making sure he didn’t irk the hawks back home too much, cautioning against persistence with a “zero-sum, Cold War mentality”.

In a series of masterstrokes intended to end Iran’s unfortunate stint as the world pariah, he has made his case against blood feuds and anti-Semitism, which were the order of the day under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a break from his predecessor’s free flowing, often incredulous rants, the so far seemingly deft leader has sought to placate Jews and Israel by castigating Nazi Crimes (his official twitter account carried greetings for the Jewish new year), condemned chemical attacks in Syria, offered to act as a peace broker between Syria and the West, and most importantly, initiated a round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme. Rouhani also appears in-charge of the proceedings on the ground- backed on every step by the Supreme Leader- evident in Ali Khamenei’s fresh references to “heroic flexibility” in Iran’s approach to international diplomacy, the transfer of control over nuclear negotiations from the hawkish Supreme National Security Council to the foreign ministry4, and his repeated reference to distaste for nuclear weapons.

Where may this go from here? The desired end goal for both countries is crystal clear — Iran’s retention of its “inalienable right” to enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes under Article 4 of NPT5, but not to weapons grade as sought by the US, with robust monitoring of Iran’s nuclear programme by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But knowing full well that it requires only a short leap to go from uranium enrichment for civil purposes to doing so for nuclear bombs, for any such deal to materialize, there needs be establishment of trust and goodwill between the two nations.

For this metamorphosis to take place there would have to be two simultaneous changes — one in Iran’s internal atmospherics and its power structures, which are inherently anti-West, and the other in US’ inherent distrust towards Iran, which is in part borne out of Bush era thinking which dubbed Iran as a part of the “axis of evil.”

Iran, since 1979, has not been seen to have moved on from the revolutionary hysteria of 1979, one that was laced with anti-American sentiment. The pinnacle of power in Iran, the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader, especially, keep their guard up against possible American and Western interference in their country. They suspect American overtures, such as there have been, to be aimed at regime change. They are also alert to America’s bonhomie with some of Iran’s most entrenched enemies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, most Iranians, especially those belonging to the older generation, cannot help but dwell on the events of 1953, when CIA and MI6 helped overthrow the legitimately elected Mohammad Mossadegh government and reinstall the Shah’s authoritarianism, under Operation Ajax6. It is a memory that bestows ideological unity upon the leadership. In a recent article7, Iran’s famous democracy crusader Akbar Ganji observes how Iran’s Supreme Leader is not a mad man as most in the West would like to believe, but has been influenced by and maintained contact with several leading secular intellectuals, who have also contributed to his sometimes legitimate distrust of US administration. On its part, US has taken a significant step forward by acknowledging its execution of Operation Ajax8. Can the Obama administration finally convince Iran’s leaders and its people of American sincerity to pursue an honest dialogue without following a hidden agenda?

Housani’s extension of Olive Branch has been backed up by a carefully tailored but nonetheless promising speech at the UN General Assembly, in which he clearly affirmed Iran’s right to Uranium enrichment, but insisted that he wanted to pursue fruitful talks with US over resolution of the nuclear issue.  It is ironic that the appeal and credibility of Rouhani’s speech at UN has been beefed up in large part because it follows several of Ahmadinejad’s hysterics at the same platform. Even the slightest of efforts as part of his charm offensive will be that much more appealing when compared to the attitude of his predecessor. More than the speeches and the tweets, his commitment to resolving disputes is shown by the fact that he’s appointed US educated Mohammad Javad Zarif as Foreign Minister and has passed on the reigns of negotiations over nuclear matters from Supreme National Security Council to him, and that high level talks between John Kerry and Zarif are already underway. Optimism’s in the air with Kerry having described Zarif’s tone as “very different”9 and British Foreign Secretary William Hague having described it as a “good start.” They plan to reconvene for more substantive talks on Iran’s nuclear programme on October 15 in Geneva. Meanwhile, Iranian negotiations with IAEA are also starting to gather momentum. For now, a clear, seemingly honest attempt at outreach is on, not just to US and the West but even to the local population. The recent albeit brief access to Facebook10- a heresy under Ahmedinejad- cannot be passed off as a technical glitch, that too when prominent political prisoners had been released.

Of course, immediate success in no way guarantees a long term rapprochement between the two sides.  Rouhani, with Supreme Leader’s blessings, will have to keep the hardliners at bay as overtures are made to resolve the nuclear issue. Ironically, the biting economic sanctions on Iran might just help to tilt the public opinion to his side. Rouhani’s stance on domestic issues- such as egregious human rights violation, curbs on free speech and brutal trampling of political dissidence- would also determine his popularity on home turf and make for keen observation in the near future. On its part, the Obama administration must keep the Pentagon hawks, US arms lobby and blood thirsty Israel and Saudi Arabia under check for any meaningful progress to take place.

Even as this historical moment approaches, the rest of the world watches with baited breath, since easing of US-Iran tensions could also mean a quicker, more comprehensive resolution to Syria crisis, ebb in intra-regional violence in Middle East- and most importantly- more oil flowing out of Iran, which has massive implications for countries such as China and India, for which Iran has traditionally been a dominant supplier.

Critics have been quick to dismiss this once in a lifetime opportunity as rhetorical feint by a new leadership in order to buy more time for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. Indeed, even the affable Rouhani has been dismissed by some as old wine in new bottle- the old wine being none other than his infamous predecessor- Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. True or not, the naysayers must not be allowed to overwhelm this unique moment in history, when two great countries, one- the cradle of ancient civilization, and the other- the beacon of modern democracy, finally look to override their differences to start a new chapter in their relations, and indeed in international politics.

Of course, the next time the two leaders happen to be in the same place, we should all hope that they latch on to the opportunity of shaking hands, and that this symbolic gesture turns into one of the most unlikely and sought after diplomatic successes in modern political history. It will be an exceptional moment. Let’s hope we all live to celebrate it.