US Approaches Détente With Iran Cautiously As World Leaders Talk

After more than a generation of ice-cold relations, Tehran and Washington may have begun the process of burying the hatchet, though for now that may yet prove optimistic. On Tuesday, Obama told the assembly and his international audience that what matters more than agreements between nations are agreements within them. In an address several hours after Obama had finished speaking, Hassan Rouhani told the UN General Assembly that his country is ready for more peaceful relations with the world. “Iran is an anchor of stability,” Rouhani declared. “Militarism and violence as means of subjugation have failed.”

“Coercive economic and military policies geared toward superiority have furthered a mindset that negates peace and security,” Rouhani added.

During this week’s annual meeting at the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama and President Rouhani were rumored to shake hands or at least meet up, a prospect that generated much excitement but ultimately did not pan out. Without fanfare, some pieces of the sanctions against Tehran have been lifted — while others, notably against banks that transact oil revenues, are firmly left in place.

The recently inaugurated president, Hassan Rouhani, has launched a major “charm offensive” toward the western powers, particularly toward the US, and personally to President Obama, who has sent private letters to Rouhani. While we are not looking at a complete normalization of relations, this could be the start of a gradual end to the virtual hostilities between the American and Iranian governments.

On Sept. 20, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed off the hopeful rhetoric of reconciliation and negotiation from Rouhani’s office as simply “media spin.” He added, without a hint of irony,

There is no need to be fooled by the words. The test is not in what Rouhani says, but in the deeds of the Iranian regime, which continues to advance its nuclear program with vigor while Rouhani is being interviewed.

Actions and intentions seem to be the name of the game here, and whether the US or Israel or anyone else who wants to throw down means to use “all options are on the table” as a threat to use force and not as a bargaining tactic will determine how this all plays out. Repeatedly, the Iranian leadership has rejected what it calls “the language of threat,” demanding instead a tone of respect. It is surely no skin off our backs if an ancient civilization is accorded that modicum of formality.

Hassan Rouhani is the most moderate candidate the Iranian people could have elected, due to the stringent vetting process by the supreme leader and his lackeys. As Ben Cohen reminded back in August, “out of more than 600 candidates for the presidency, only eight made it to the ballot.” (The hardliner former nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was crushed in the polls.)

In an opinion published in the Washington Post, President Rouhani gave a passing mention toward his country’s “peaceful nuclear energy program” in which, he wrote, for Iran “mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world.” Rouhani repeatedly says he wants to engage with the international community as a whole, but do western analysts and experts agree that that is his goal? Does he represent real reform or is he just another “akhoond”?

On Sept. 23, Iran released 80 political prisoners, a move interpreted by Tehran correspondent Thomas Erdbrink as “another gesture of support for Rouhani” by the supreme leader, “who gave Rouhani the authority to pursue a deal with the United States,” though with a limited timeframe.

Amir Mohebbian, an insider analyst who is positioned at high levels in Tehran to offer political critique for outsiders, told longtime correspondent Thomas Erdbrink that the letter sent by President Obama to President Rouhani “promised relief from sanctions if Tehran demonstrated a willingness to ‘cooperate with the international community, keep your commitments and remove ambiguities.’”

Mohebbian also reported that “Iran’s hard-line clerics and military men … could attack Rouhani as a sellout and clip his political wings” if the nuclear talks do not yield results, and for the Iranians that means getting them plugged back into the international banking system.

“The overtures to the United States are part of a flurry of steps altering the trajectory of the Iranian state,” wrote Erdbrink, “including domestic liberalizations and returning the politically powerful military [particularly the Revolutionary Guard Corps] to the barracks — for now.”

Mohebbian added that Khamenei’s office was “generally receptive to the letter except for what he said was Obama complimenting Rouhani as ‘the representative of the Iranian people, not of the totalitarian leaders.’” Mohebbian also reported that the supreme leader “had been growing concerned about the future of the revolution, with so many of its founders aging,” ruling a country in which 70 percent of the population is 30 and younger.

Patrick Clawson wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that while Rouhani does not have the final say in the Iranian government, Khamenei, on Sept. 17, gave an address to top-level IRGC commanders, saying cryptically, “A wrestler can even show flexibility sometimes, but he does not forget who is rival is and what his main goal is.” He gave this metaphorical image the term “heroic leniency.”

Clawson reported that the new president, who by all accounts has been empowered to make this push for a diplomatic settlement, “is even better placed than his predecessors to have real influence” and “enjoys support from a broad swath of the Iranian political spectrum.” Khamenei “has long insisted that the nuclear issue is only an excuse used by the United States to pursue its real objective of regime change in Iran,” added Clawson.

Cohen, the skeptical commentator, wrote in the Slate webzine on Aug. 6 that Rouhani is not quite Mikhail Gorbachev. Rouhani, he wrote, “was an early confidant of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. … After the 1979 revolution, he served in a variety of prominent positions, many of them concerned with national security.”

Cohen further asserted that if Rouhani even dared to seriously challenge the Iranian nuclear program — e.g. confirming the uranium enrichment center at Fordow, which has the US, Israel, and Britain very concerned about its military aspects — “he would risk alienating both the military and Supreme Leader Khamenei, who recognizes the advantage of having a president perceived by the outside world as a reformist, but who will certainly not permit him to do anything that would irreparably compromise Iran’s strategic position.”

During the 1980s, when Rouhani, known as the “diplomat sheikh,” served as a senior defense official, the Reagan administration invited him to Washington as one of the pragmatist, moderate leaders of the revolutionary government in Iran, Shane Harris reported on Sept. 20. National Security Council staff members, in May 1986, met with Rouhani, and by all accounts found him to be very reasonable. One was concerned he would end up losing his head.

Howard Teicher, who had a senior position at the NSC, recalled that Rouhani “said many things at the time that showed he wanted to deal with us. And we could deal with them,” he said. “I left my meetings with Rouhani believing there were clearly people in the revolutionary government that saw the world and its interests in ways that were rational,” Harris quoted Teicher as saying. “To not engage him very seriously, to me, would be the height of folly.”

Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency national intelligence official for the Near East and Southeast Asia, does not believe Rouhani “has changed his stripes at all. He’s coming at these issues with the same attitude he has all along.” This is also echoed by Greg Thielmann, who worked for the State Department’s intelligence bureau at the time, saying that Hassan Rouhani’s “campaign rhetoric was indicative of a fundamentally different approach to foreign policy than his predecessor.”

“There is mounting evidence that the stars are aligning for a more productive discussion with the United States,” Thielmann said.

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1 Comment

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One response to “US Approaches Détente With Iran Cautiously As World Leaders Talk

  1. Nice report here. I understand the desire to not appear a push-over on Iran. Indeed, there are issues that conflict with national and humanitarian interests. But I too question whether such a cold hand with Iran at this time would kill an opportunity for progress.

    Question: Can the Obama administration afford to appear lenient on Iran?

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