Ruben Sprich/Reuters
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses a news conference following nuclear negotiations with European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is leading talks with Iran on behalf of the six world powers, at the United Nations in Geneva Wednesday, October 16, 2013.

Why a little-noticed chat between the US and Iran is a big deal

Direct contact between the US and Iran, long hostile parties, drew little attention at nuclear talks in Geneva – a sign that it's rapidly becoming more routine.

When Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani had their historic phone call in late September, the news was met with amazement and a flood of news coverage. But when Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi and top US negotiator Wendy Sherman held an hour-long meeting on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Geneva this week, it prompted barely a murmur.

The disparity between the reactions to each event indicate how quickly such headline-grabbing contact is turning relatively routine. When asked about the US-Iran meeting in Geneva, Iranian officials said it was “no big deal,” as if it were just another day at the office. The Americans, too, are fitting once-forbidden contact into their diplomatic agenda.

“I wouldn’t say I’m blasé about it, but I would say…it is no longer the Rubicon it once was, and that is a good thing,”  a senior US official said after the Geneva talks. The US-Iran meeting “was professional….like I might have with many colleagues around the world. Now, that’s not to say that we aren’t both aware of the unusualness of the relationship…”

And rarely has there been a greater study in contrasts in Iran than now, as outbursts of familiar, fierce anti-American rhetoric – a staple since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution – are joined by the taboo-breaking surge of high-level US-Iran contact.

But Iran experts note that Tehran’s new diplomatic push to resolve the nuclear issue should not be conflated with overcoming the far more challenging historical and ideological differences that have kept the US and Iran arch enemies for a generation.

“The taboo of high-level US-Iranian contacts is no more, but this should not be equated with détente or with rapprochement in bilateral relations,” says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, who was in Geneva to monitor the negotiations. 

“The nuclear issue remains the primary litmus test for the two sides to deescalate tensions,” says Mr. Vaez. “Their failure to do so would make this new warming of relations nothing but an Indian summer.”

US is still 'Satan'

The breadth of the US-Iran chasm is sometimes still on display in Tehran, despite the surprise June election of Mr. Rouhani. Speaking about the US, the centrist cleric has said, “This is a very old wound… and we need to think about somehow healing this injury.”

In New York late last month, Rouhani spoke of the “great” American nation. In an address to the United Nations, he said Iran “does not seek to increase tensions with the United States” and both can “arrive at a framework to manage our differences.”

The US-Iran tete-a-tetes have sparked debate in Iran about dropping the "Death to America" chant. Yet differences between the two countries remain a battle cry for hard-liners, who sent a few dozen supporters to the airport to greet Rouhani as he returned from New York with a pelting of eggs and a shoe.

“America is the great Satan,” Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami declared from the Tehran pulpit last week.

“During the last 35 years has this evil become less or more?” asked Mr. Khatami. “If yesterday in the arena of conspiracies against Iran, America was a snake, it is now a poisonous serpent. Any conspiracy that is directed against Iran stems from America.”

Proving good intentions

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who makes all final decisions about state policy in Iran, has also frequently listed grievances against the US – from working with Israel to wage a covert war to undermine Iran’s nuclear program, to orchestrating a global network of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. Last February, he ruled out direct US-Iran contact.

Yet Ayatollah Khamenei has now authorized “heroic flexibility” in the nuclear talks, code for making a deal that will permanently limit the scale of Iran’s nuclear program so it will never produce a bomb, but without compromising what Tehran calls its “right” to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

“As far as the United States is concerned, we have an open mind,” Mr. Zarif said in a press conference yesterday at the conclusion of the Geneva talks. A senior US official had said Zarif’s package of proposals and his team's interaction with six world powers negotiating were the most “intense, detailed, straightforward [and] candid” seen from Iran in more than one-and-a-half years of such nuclear talks. 

“We are prepared to allow the United States to show its good intentions and goodwill,” said Zarif, echoing long-standing US talking points about Iran. “Of course we need to witness good faith…to see the actions of the United States be commensurate with the words that have been uttered by the highest officials of the United States, that they want to deal with Iran based on mutual respect and mutual interest and equal footing, and in fact to move towards a resolution of this issue.”

That would mean no more sanctions that would make a solution more difficult to obtain.

“We hope that, this time, everybody will pass the test of confidence building," Zarif said. 

Treading carefully

While Khamenei signed off on “heroic flexibility,” however, he has also called some actions taken by the Rouhani team in New York  “inappropriate.”

The politics of these changes are so sensitive in Iran that when the hard-line Kayhan newspaper – whose editor is an official “representative” of Khamenei – misquoted Zarif telling lawmakers in a closed-door session that the Obama-Rouhani call was a mistake, it prompted a brief trip by Zarif to the hospital.  

“This morning, after seeing the headline of one newspaper, I got severe back and leg pain. I couldn’t even walk or sit,” Zarif posted on his Facebook page just over a week ago.

“It was a bitter but very informative day for me,” wrote Zarif. “I learned that whatever I want to say, to say it publicly, because otherwise the market for abuse is very active.”

In Geneva yesterday, Zarif had to be pushed into the press conference in a wheelchair.

Yet even the health of Zarif – who was educated in San Francisco and Denver, has spent more than half his life in the US, and can banter easily in English with other diplomats – became a source of common ground and mutual commiseration at the Geneva talks.

“There isn’t one among us who doesn’t have a back problem,” said the senior US official. “So everybody had a piece of a back story for [Zarif] – books they thought he should read, things he might try – because we have all suffered.”

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correctly reflect the Iranian official who met with US negotiator Wendy Sherman. 

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