Face time and pivoting presidents bring US and Iran a little closer

Repeated meetings between US and Iran during nuclear talks have led to a partial thaw after decades of enmity.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, delivers a keynote ahead of the ECO council of ministers in Tehran, Iran on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. Even before Iran's envoys could pack their bags in Geneva after wrapping up a first-step nuclear deal with world powers, President Rouhani was opening a potentially tougher diplomatic front: Selling the give-and-take to his country's powerful interests led by the Revolutionary Guard.

US and Iranian officials have spent more time face-to-face in recent weeks than in the previous 35 years combined.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the trauma of the US Embassy hostage crisis, presidents on both sides have been stymied in cracking the code that might turn mutual hostility into at least a cold peace – if not some kind of rapprochement.

Now, the initial success of a deal to constrain Iran's nuclear program, pushed forward by a new president in Tehran and a second-term president in Washington who has long called for dialogue, is raising expectations of change.

The learning curve is steep for both sides after a generation of flag burning and chants of “Death to America” in Iran and vilification of an “evil” Islamic Republic in Washington.

“I don’t think either of them have a crystal clear idea of what they want the relationship to look like,” says Reza Marashi, a former State Department researcher on Iran now with the National Iranian American Council. “I think right now the Iranians would be happy going from enemies to rivals, like a cold peace.”

That expectation is filling the pages of moderate newspapers in Iran, where the June election of the centrist Hassan Rouhani raised hopes of an end to isolation and sanctions, and an end to control by hard-line elements that prevented any recalibration with the West.

“I can absolutely understand the anger and pain that hardliners are suffering from, because the details of the Geneva agreement are not important,” Sadegh Zibakalam, a reform-leaning political analyst from Tehran University, said in an interview with the Fararu website. "The important thing is that a paradigm is crumbling which says there is nothing between us and the West besides confrontation and enmity."

“The hardliners understood that the flag they are holding [hostility against Americans] is starting to break down. because Geneva was a starting point and for the first time after 35 years [Iran and the US] signed a document, shook hands and embraced each other," Mr. Zibakalam said.

In those early hours Sunday morning, top officials on both sides cautioned against stepping too far beyond the moment, which was historic enough already.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was “not insignificant” that US and Iranian officials had spent so much time talking at such a high level, but added, “It is too early for us to talk about other things…. Obviously one would hope that Iran would make choices to rejoin the international community in full; the first step is to resolve the nuclear issue.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “I hope the outcome of this process – in addition to the resolution of the nuclear issue – will be to take concrete steps in the restoration of confidence, particularly the confidence of the Iranian people toward the West. And that would be a new beginning.”

For Mr. Obama – who long ago began asking aides in every Iran discussion, “What have we done today for a deal with Iran?” – the concrete outreach began with secret talks in which senior State Department and White House officials traveled to meet Iranian counterparts in Oman last March, according to reports by the Associated Press and news organization Al-Monitor. Secret meetings accelerated after the election of Mr. Rouhani.

“Naturally, a group of negotiators and an institution – not just the State Department, but the US government – that had little to no contact with Iran…is going to improve their working knowledge by direct interaction,” says Mr. Marashi, whose organization advocates against sanctions on Iran. "It’s the next best thing to being there, so they are learning as they go."

“When I talk to my former [State Department] colleagues the words that they use are like ‘fascinating’ and ‘tremendous learning experience,’” Marashi says.

“Just like there were different camps within the Iranian government…and the Iranian people allowed Rouhani’s [outreach] narrative to come back to the forefront after 10 years, Rouhani getting elected empowered people in Washington who had a similar narrative, who were boxed in by hardliners in Washington and in Tehran, participating in a cycle of escalation that was mutually beneficial to them,” he adds. “They are being listened to far more now, especially by the White House.”

After so many false starts, which have led to deeper mistrust, caution now reigns.

“Any rapprochement really hinges on the two sides’ ability to use this first, interim agreement as a stepping stone towards a comprehensive agreement,” says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “If that process fails, mistrust is going to be exacerbated rather than trust being built…so it would be another failed opportunity that would just make relations much more difficult.”

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