The phone call between Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations, the first direct contact between presidents of Iran and the United States in three decades, signals the seizing of a chance to advance relations between the two countries and potentially open up debate over Iran’s nuclear program and US sanctions.
The earlier agreement between the US and Russia over Syria’s chemical arsenal had given Obama the opportunity to reach out to Iran while making it clear Washington regards Iran’s nuclear program as a far more serious potential threat.
The arrival of Hassan Rouhani as president has brought a shift in Iran’s policy towards Syria as well as the US. New foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke last month of “grave mistakes” made by the Assad regime that had “unfortunately, paved the way for the situation in the country to be abused.” Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani directly accused Assad’s forces of using chemical weapons.
Dialogue between Washington and Tehran has two related tracks, the search for a settlement ending the war in Syria, and Iran’s nuclear program. Each needs face-to-face bilateral contact as well as respectively the Geneva-2 conference, scheduled for July and postponed by the US, and the P5+1, the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, which has been in nuclear talks with Iran for seven years without significant progress.
The hope for Syria is that both sides realize war is less in their interests than calming the regional Shia-Sunni tension it is enflaming. Wiser counsels in Washington know the road to 9-11 began in the US-Saudi intelligence co-operation and support for militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In Iran, pragmatists argued within months of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s arrival in office in 2005 that his assertive Shi’ism would alarm the Sunni Arab establishment just as surely as his questioning of the Holocaust would alienate the US and Europe. Neither, they said, served Iran’s national interests.
Shortly after his election, Rouhani said diplomacy with Saudi Arabia was an urgent priority but the sheer speed of his reaching out to Washington is a surprise.
Improving US-Iranian relations faces a challenge in reviewing grievances. Americans still resent the 1979 embassy seizure and the 1983 bombing that killed 241 in the Beirut airport marine barracks, possibly the work of an Iranian national. A BBC poll earlier this year found 87 percent of Americans viewed Iranian influence negatively, the highest percentage in the world.
Iranian state television often shows images of the floating wreckage of Iran Air flight 655, shot down in 1988 over the Straits of Hormuz by USS Vincennes, with the loss of 290 lives. Rallies regularly evoke Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s denigration of the US as the ‘Great Satan’.
Rouhani is buoyed by his election victory but knows his fundamentalist critics in Tehran are waiting to pounce. His leeway to reach a compromise is real, but limited. In describing talks with the US Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the rahbar (leader), expressed the balance between backing negotiations while remaining skeptical of Washington’s motives and intentions.
Arguably the outlines of agreements on both Syria and Iran’s nuclear program have long been evident. A former senior western diplomat told me earlier in the year that world and regional powers should agree that while the Shia would lead Iraq, with minority rights, the Sunni would lead Syria, also with minority rights.
Western desire for ‘objective guarantees’ over the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program might be satisfied by a deal under which Iran would accept intrusive UN inspections and limit the program in scale and in the level of uranium enrichment. The quid pro quo would be easing sanctions that have, among other things, halved Iran’s oil exports and prevented development of its vast gas reserves. Iran has a vaguer requirement: that the US accepts its regional influence as natural and legitimate.
The obstacles are political. As Sayegh Kharrazi, Iran’s former ambassador, put it to me seven years ago: “On both sides, neoconservatives are strong. But neoconservatives cannot make decisions for everyone.”
As ever, the devil is in the details, but the details are discussed only if there is a broader will for agreement. That is the responsibility of leaders.
Gareth Smyth is the former chief Tehran correspondent of the Financial Times