US-Iran relations not as bitter at UN – and some are wringing their hands

Some US lawmakers worry that the Obama administration will be lulled by a more reasonable-sounding Iran to accept a nuclear deal that leaves Tehran on the verge of nuclear weapons capability.

Jewel Samad/Pool/Reuters
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani smiles during a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 23, 2014.

There was a time when the presence of Iran’s top leadership at the United Nations in New York was a guaranteed source of fireworks.

In his day, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would rail against the United States and question Israel’s right to exist – the latter sure to prompt a walkout by dozens of diplomats from the UN General Assembly hall.

Then last year, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani setting a new moderate tone, Iran commanded attention for a different reason: All eyes were focused on Secretary of State John Kerry’s groundbreaking sit-down with US-educated Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Speculation raged over whether Mr. Rouhani and President Obama would meet and shake hands.

They didn’t – but the two leaders did have a phone conversation as Rouhani left town, making that the highest-level contact between the two countries in more than three decades.

This year the two adversaries, each with bitter memories of the other’s transgressions and with no formal diplomatic relations between them, seem to be carrying on almost as if things between them were normal.

Secretary Kerry meets with Mr. Zarif for more than an hour in New York and hardly anyone notices – even when Kerry speaks of a US willingness to pursue Tehran’s cooperation on defeating Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria.

And Rouhani books a New York hotel room without anti-regime think tanks mounting media campaigns to get the hotel to reverse course and tell the Iranian leader “no vacancy.”

That trend to a kind of normalization between the two foes is exactly what has some in Washington, on Capitol Hill, and in conservative think tanks wringing their hands.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said this week that in the long run, Iran poses a bigger threat to the US than IS – echoing the thoughts earlier this month of no less a diplomatic authority than Henry Kissinger.

On Capitol Hill, the worry is that the Obama administration will be lulled by a more reasonable-sounding Iran to accept a nuclear deal that leaves “the mullahs” on the verge of nuclear weapons capability. Last week, Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois penned a letter to Kerry – signed by 30 of Senator Kirk’s Republican colleagues – in which Kirk, one of the main architects of Iran sanctions, warns against the US offering “troubling concessions” to a country that “poses the greatest long-term threat to the security of the United States.”

Indeed, at a meeting Tuesday with American media executives and journalists, Rouhani sounded optimistic about the prospects for concluding a deal on Iran’s nuclear program by a late November deadline. “This will be a very important and telling week” not just for the nuclear talks, but also for the future path of US-Iran relations, he said through a translator.

Without getting much into details, Rouhani said that international talks going on this week in New York during the General Assembly have the potential to deliver results on the thorniest issues standing in the way of a nuclear deal – leaving just the details to work through by the end of November.

If a deal can be struck, then a number of good things can happen, he said, including an improvement in US-Iran relations.

That will not be music to the ears of Iran’s critics, who say nothing has really changed under Rouhani – not the state of human rights, not the disregard for average Iranians’ political views, not Iran’s support for destabilizing militant forces in the region. Except perhaps the image of the Iranian government.

Rouhani appeared to acknowledge that a nuclear deal would face opposition in both Iran and the US – just as there was opposition on both sides to the interim deal reached last November in Geneva. If a deal is struck, there will be “a short-lived dust bowl” in both countries, he said through a translator. But that’s to be expected, he suggested, since one likely consequence of a deal – better US-Iran relations – would have major detractors on both sides.

In any event, neither Iranian nor White House officials are predicting an Obama-Rouhani handshake this year. The US side says the president is not opposed but that this particular ball is in the Iranian court, while Rouhani says that such a meeting would take a certain degree of planning and that none is under way.

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