Iranian-American relations have been paved with mistrust and mutual misperceptions since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis. As such, the ill will that has existed between the two governments has been building for 35 years, and it is not going to be bridged easily by the talks on Iran’s nuclear capabilities in Geneva. However, as the United States and its allies prepare for another round of talks with Iran on Nov. 20, both sides believe that they are getting close to a first step toward a comprehensive agreement.
A deal seemed close in the last round of talks in Geneva, but the French hard line on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program created new skepticism. As a result, the Iranians refused to conclude a deal on what Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called “differences of opinion within the P5 plus 1 group.”
As for the Obama administration, it found itself in a fragile position, on the one hand battling Congress over the new sanctions against Iran, on the other keeping alive the diplomatic channel in order to take off the table the military option supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia. The excessive US preoccupation with Iran has led these two old allies of American diplomacy in the Middle East to feel abandoned and to lobby against any pact that would let Iran keep its nuclear technology.
Therefore, the lesson understood by the Americans is that the challenge of diplomacy with Iran is that it conflicts with the strategic interests of a range of countries in the Middle East. It is hard to remember a time when Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with American leadership in the Middle East.
The new American diplomatic positioning in regard to Iran owes much to a political shift in Tehran from a policy of confrontation to one of constructive dialogue. After winning a surprise June victory in the presidential election against conservative candidates, Hassan Rouhani found himself with a country in economic distress and diplomatic isolation.
Mr. Rouhani’s election brought back a spirit of openness to Iran’s foreign policy while sending a positive message of dialogue and friendship to the Americans, and especially to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) in order to help reintegrate Iran into the world economy and withdraw some of the toughest sanctions imposed on the Iranian economy.
During the past six months, all-out support has been provided to Rouhani by two former Iranian presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Rouhani also had the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s benediction to start talks with the US in order to ease Iran out of its eight years of political decline and international embarrassment under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But Rouhani’s uphill battle to uplift Iranian diplomacy has not been an easy task. The blame after the first round of nuclear talks in Geneva is coming not only from Israel and Saudi Arabia, which had a chance to mobilize against what they consider a “failed” deal, but also from hardliners in Iran, who are now looking for an excuse to quit the negotiations and to criticize the Rouhani administration. Rouhani will therefore face increasing pressure from conservative groups inside Iran to alter course back toward the “Death to America” slogan.
However, there is still room for hope. A diplomatic deal is clearly preferable for all sides, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, which in the long run have no other option but to accept a broader American strategy of deterrence and containment of a nuclear Iran rather than a costly military engagement that would involve a great number of states and political actors in the region.
The final question is whether an agreement with Iran should only be limited to the nuclear program, or take into consideration all issues of mutual concern between Iran and the US (apologies for past abuses, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria). In the meantime, approval of new sanctions against Iran by the US Congress would seriously jeopardize diplomatic efforts to settle the nuclear standoff. The risk is that the fragile Iran-US talks will suffer once again from a drumbeat leading to war, while ending the dream of millions of Iranians who voted for Rouhani with the hope that his administration would change the course of Iranian politics both internationally and domestically.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, the Iranian philosopher, dissident, and advocate of nonviolence, lives in exile in Canada. Among other books, he is author of “Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity.”
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