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Remarkably unremarkable: Rouhani's UN visit sign of new US-Iran normal?

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What stood out about the Iranian president's visit to New York was how much less strident US-Iran relations have become.

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    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has used his public appearances in New York this week to grouse about American non-compliance with aspects of the Iran nuclear deal. He has cautioned the United States about violating his country’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf.

But while in town for the United Nations General Assembly, he has tempered his criticism of the US while putting out the welcome mat for Americans interested in visiting Iran. He’s been especially warm toward business people and entrepreneurs – “American traders, technicians, and business owners” – who could help get Iran’s economic engines humming again.

“We have always maintained good and positive relations with the nation and the people of the United States of America,” Mr. Rouhani told a hotel ballroom of journalists Thursday. “If we have issues,” he added, “those are with the United States government, not with the companies [and] the people of the United States.

Whatever happened to the Great Satan?

This was Rouhani’s third year in a row attending the UN’s annual opening session, and over that time a leader known for pragmatism and moderation never has used the fiery and revolutionary language of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Still, what seemed most remarkable about the Iranian leader’s visit this year was just how normal – almost unremarkable – it was.

After years of intense bilateral diplomatic contact and nine months into an international nuclear agreement that bound the two former arch enemies together, what stood out about Rouhani in New York was how it showcased how much less strident and less-exceptional US-Iran relations are.

“In terms of bilateral relations at the government level, at least some aspects have come to seem normal,” says Garrett Nada, an Iran specialist at the US Institute of Peace in Washington and editor of its Iran Primer.

Perhaps the best example is “the very close working relationship” between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, he says. “It’s become normal that Kerry and Zarif will carry on conversations, take photos, and see each other when they’re in New York,” he says. “That’s a really big sea change compared to how things were in the past.”

Quiet as deal kicks in

Gone are the days of frenzied speculation over what would happen if the American and Iranian presidents crossed each other in the UN’s hallways. Absent are the large and noisy anti-Iran demonstrations, or anything like the PR campaigns with the objective of shaming Manhattan hotels into denying lodging to Mr. Ahmadinejad and his entourage.

This year, Rouhani used words no harsher than what a US ally in some form of dispute with its friend might employ.

In the wake of the nuclear deal, Iran’s finance sector is “facing problems because the other side of the agreement still has to live up to its commitments,” Rouhani said. He faulted the US Treasury Department for using the non-nuclear sanctions the US maintains on Iran to discourage foreign banks from doing business deals involving Iran.

“They frighten, they scare the banks,” he said. “This is something we oppose.”

One explanation for Rouhani’s quiet visit to New York is that despite the complaints, Iran is starting to reap the benefits of the nuclear deal, some Iran experts say. They point out, for example, that just this week the US issued the export licenses that will allow Iran to purchase dozens of new commercial aircraft from Boeing and Airbus. The US has also returned hundreds of millions of dollars in unfrozen assets to Iran.

But others emphasize that, while the nuclear deal may have lowered tensions between Iran and the US, the changes have only scratched the surface.

“So far the nuclear deal has been transactional rather than transformational,” says Gary Samore, who served for four years as President Obama’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction.

Both the US and Iran have “major incentives” to keep the deal in force and to avoid its unraveling, he says. But that doesn’t mean it will lead to a transformation – either in bilateral relations, or in Iranian behavior.

“For Obama, [the deal] allows the US to focus on defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield” rather than worrying about a progressing Iranian nuclear program, says Dr. Samore, who spoke in New York this week at a United Against Nuclear Iran conference. A deal collapse would “blow up” a “tacit US-Iran agreement” around the coming battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, he says.

For Rouhani, the hope is that the deal will start producing economic benefits before spring, when he will be up for reelection, Samore says.

The result is that smooth relations that keep the nuclear deal on track make sense for both Washington and Tehran for the time being.

Heat back home

The longer-term prospects of both the nuclear deal and US-Iran relations are less certain, Samore says. “I don’t have much confidence the deal is going to remain in force for 15 years,” he says.

In part that pessimism stems from the powerful forces arrayed in both countries against the deal and improved bilateral relations.

In Iran, the most hardline and ideological forces sense a threat from Rouhani’s pragmatism and opening to the West and the US in particular.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has not tempered his anti-American vitriol as a result of the nuclear deal, but if anything has ramped it up, Mr. Nada says. He notes that Mr. Khamenei chose the run-up to Rouhani’s visit to New York “to take to Twitter to say that, ‘Basically the nuclear deal has taught us once again that America is not trustworthy,’ ” he says.

In the US, Congress remains sharply critical of the nuclear deal, with many members convinced it has emboldened Iran to pursue activities in the Middle East that are contrary to US interests.

The nuclear deal may have allowed Rouhani to pass almost as just another leader on New York this week, but Nada says that whether the “normalizing” of US-Iran relations continues will depend in large part on politics in both countries.

“One of the critical factors that will decide whether this fairly open communication, the personal diplomacy, and a pragmatic pursuit of national interests are able to continue will be the elections in both countries,” he says. “Does Rouhani win reelection, does he keep Zarif on as foreign minister if he does,” and who will be the next US president and secretary of State? Nada says. “Those political decisions will be as important as anything else in determining the direction of the relationship.”

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