September 29, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
President Hassan Rouhani came to the United Nations at New York for his first interaction with world leaders last week since succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s new President. Ahead of the visit he had written on September 19 a post editorial in The Washington Post that these days is emerging as a new form of diplomacy at the highest level where world leaders use the media to reach audience in another country directly. His Post article, statement at the UN and media engagements in New York have hinted that for the first time since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, serious efforts are underway for thawing of Iran-US relations.
Iran is a major foreign policy occupation of the Obama administration. To his credit, President Obama has been successful in taking the United States away from a military conflict with Iran by deflecting domestic and international pressure arising from the fact that Iran had provided enough evidence of crossing the Red Line in the process of manufacturing the nuclear bomb. He allowed diplomacy a chance and has used sanctions to tighten the noose around the Iranian government on the nuclear issue. It has not been easy doing that as long as Ahmadinejad was the President. He was too provocative to allow the diplomatic option but President Obama was able to withstand his provocations and domestic and international pressure.
President Hassan Rouhani was elected in Iranian elections in June by a landslide winning in the first round with 50.88 percent of votes beating his nearest rival Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf who polled 16.46 percent of the votes. He brings to his august office a number of positive traits for Iran’s rapprochement with the USA and the West. He is already accepted in Iran and abroad as the second reformist to become Iran’s President after Mohammad Khatami who was elected Iran’s first reformist President in 1999 but failed to leave his imprint because of the system of politics in Iran. In the Iranian system, the leader of the clergy is the Supreme Leader and the head of state and the highest-ranking political and religious leader of the country.
What fate awaits Hassan Rouhani is anybody’s guess. The new President however is well endowed intellectually and politically to see Iran through its present crisis where he would need to interact with the West diplomatically in order to meet and overcome the challenges and problems at home a great deal of which has emerged because of the sanctions. He was born into a religious family and earned a degree in law from the university before fall of the Shah’s regime in 1977. He earned a Ph.D. in Islamic Law from the University of Caledonia, Scotland and returned home after Shah’s downfall while he was contemplating going to Harvard. His stay abroad exposed him to the West in a positive way. In Iran, he worked his way in the clergy and became Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, becoming the first cleric to hold that post when he assumed it in 2003. The same year he successfully suspended his country’s clandestine nuclear programme. In addition to his exposure to the West, Hassan Rouhani has a few other plusses in Iran’s politics. He left the country in 1977 in the company of Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He has also known Iran’s present supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei for 40 years. He has also sat for 25 years in the country’s powerful Supreme National Council.
Hassan Rouhani attracted the attention of the US and the West for campaigning on a promise of “constructive engagement with the USA” during Iran’s presidential elections. In his Washington Post article, Hassan Rouhani reiterated Iran’s desire for thawing of Iran-US relations. Of particular interest to the White House were President Rouhani’s offer for “constructive engagement” and the context in which he explained the offer. Hassan Rouhani wrote: “The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.”
President Rouhani touched on the core issue of discord with some refreshing and courageous words. He wrote that on the issue both sides have said in the “10 years of back and forth” what “we don’t want rather than what we want” and the time had come when the need was for both the sides to say what they want. President Rouhani further wrote that it needed courage to come out from the position of the hard rock and the sea that the two sides had hit over negotiations. He expressed Iran’s intention to state what it wanted and urged President Obama to do the same.
The Post article, the President Rouhani’s promising words during his campaign that have become mandate following his landslide victory, and importantly, his statement at the United Nations for “constructive engagement with other countries based on mutual respect and common interests, and within the same framework does not seek to increase tensions with the United States” generated a great deal of positive vibes in the United States. Thus there were expectations that President Obama and the Iranian President would meet, albeit informally, at the UN. Unfortunately that did not happen because the Iranian side backed out. No reasons were given officially but uninformed sources indicated that as red wine was on the cards to be served at the venue of the proposed meeting, President Rouhani had to back out for understandable reasons.
A more serous explanation why the Iranian President backed out was he had to be cautious for domestic compulsions. In the Revolutionary Guards, he still has many who are deadly opposed to thawing of relations with the USA and would allow the country to move that way only after they saw that the US was willing to make concrete concessions, perhaps on the issue of sanctions. Nevertheless, there have been enough positives in Iran-USA relations after President Hassan Rouhani assumed office leading to his trip to New York for analysts to expect that a “rare diplomatic opening” is emerging in these relations after serious concerns in the recent past that a US led military intervention in Iran on the nuclear issue was possible.
At the time of writing this article, the Foreign Minister of Iran Mohammad Zarif is scheduled to sit over the next 3 weeks with his counterparts from USA, Britain, France, China and Russia in New York. President Obama paved the way for the meeting when he said: “We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course. Given President Rouhani’s stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government, in close coordination with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China. The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.” The outcome of the meeting would determine the roadmap for the positive direction in Iran-USA relations that the Iranian President has charted that President Obama has seconded.
There are detractors to the thawing of US-Iran relations. In the country, the opposition is coming from the Conservatives who want unconditional end to Iran’s pursuit of the nuclear option before the talks for thawing of relations could start. Israel has articulated, expectedly, the case of the opponents most conclusively. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned President Obama and called President Rouhani a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The detractors argue that President Rouhani is making the positive moves because his country is close to economic peril as a consequence of the sanctions. In 2011, Iran earned US 95 billion from oil exports; in 2012, only US$ 65 billion, a 27% fall. They are convinced that he is buying time to come out of the stranglehold of the sanctions and has no intention of giving up the nuclear option.
The writer is a retired