By Pieter Cranenbroek – International Politics Blogger
On 27 September US president Barack Obama spoke on the phone with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, which signified the first direct contact between the countries’ presidents in over three decades.
Diplomatic relations between the US and Iran had been frozen since the 1979 US hostage crisis in Tehran and yet last week both countries sat around the table with five other world powers to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme. Although American and European representatives are tempering high expectations, there is certainly a cause for moderate optimism.
Granted, Iran’s sudden friendly tone takes some getting used to. The Asian state’s recent eagerness to repair its relations with the West has been received with great scepticism, but it is not inexplicable. Iran is desperate to relieve itself from the various trade embargoes and sanctions that significantly weaken its economy and with the moderately progressive Rouhani it finally has a president willing to start a dialogue with the West.
Considering Obama’s foreign policy of reaching out to US adversaries, the rapprochement may have been in the air since Rouhani’s election win in June. But the fact that Iran and the West are already in “substantive” and “forward-looking” nuclear talks within three months after the change of government in Iran is certainly encouraging.
Radical change in foreign policy
The breakthrough in US-Iranian diplomacy is another example of the welcome change in foreign policy that Obama has introduced. Whereas his predecessor Bush, in the tradition of most Republican presidents, largely ignored foreign policy apart from expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has soothed American relations with Latin America, Russia, and the Middle East.
However, regardless of Obama’s intentions the most recent events would not have occurred if it had not been for Iran’s most recent change in government. Interestingly enough, there are quite a few parallels between the newly installed Iranian President Rouhani and Obama.
Like Obama, Rouhani was preceded by a considerably more conservative and internationally controversial leader (Ahmadinejad). Moreover, before being elected Rouhani promised the Iranian people to improve the country’s rocky relations with the West.
Nevertheless, American and European representatives have toned down optimism which is not surprising after years of radio silence. Negotiations are likely to last months as there are major obstacles in the way.
Before a constructive solution can be reached, Iran will have to allow inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) substantially more access to their nuclear sites.
Iran giving a satisfying explanation as to why they have produced amounts of uranium that greatly exceed what is necessary for the production of nuclear energy will be another challenge. In addition, it is important to remember that Iran is in essence still a theocracy with the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as its highest political and religious authority. Since Khamenei has the final say on domestic and foreign policy, it remains to be seen how much freedom Rouhani has been granted to strike a deal.
Still, Iran has a lot to gain from a constructive outcome of these nuclear talks. It would benefit greatly from a pact with the West that ends the Islamic state’s international isolation and lifts the punitive sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council.
Such an agreement would simultaneously help Rouhani materialise another election promise: improving the Iranian economy. In this sense, it is not completely unthinkable that Rouhani has been given free rein to negotiate on the nuclear issue. Additionally, the fact that these talks for the first time in history occur in English without the need for interpreters could considerably improve the process.
Regardless of what cynics and sceptics are saying, the present talks are already a breakthrough. It may only be a first and small step but it is an important one nevertheless.
In the words of Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group: “The biggest taboo in Iranian politics has been broken.” It is essential though that the next American president will continue Obama’s foreign policy. Contrary to what Republicans may think, the US doesn’t need to throw bombs to act strong on the world stage. It might still take a long time before the Middle East will become a popular American holiday destination but after Obama’s second term has ended, at least it will no longer be the mine field that Bush left.