Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive is showing results. The relationship between Tehran and Washington is thawing. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif plan to meet later this week for high level talks. American and Iranian relations have not been this warm since before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. So the question is, will Iran give up its nuclear weapons program?
First, is the U.S. is ready for constructive dialogue? This isn’t the first time we’ve wanted a warming of relations with Tehran. Bill Clinton tried to set up a face-to-face meeting with then Iranian president Mohammad Khatami back in September 2000. The Iranians weren’t ready.
That was then. What about today? When Obama first campaigned for president, he promised to talk with America’s enemies. He has followed through, speaking in the past with Hugo Chavez at a regional summit and Colonel Khaddafi at a G8 meeting. American willingness to discuss issues directly and constructively with Iran is clear. What isn’t clear is whether Iran is merely stalling or is seriously considering giving up its nuclear weapons program. Let’s investigate Iran’s latest moves in its charm offensive further. This time the desire for a better relationship and open dialogue is coming from the Iranian camp. And that’s a good sign.
But what evidence is there that they are really thawing? Javad Zarif sent out a happy Rosh Hashanah message via Twitter, in stark contrast to their previous administration’s vitriol against Israel and denial of the holocaust. Obama and Rouhani have sent each other letters, the first direct dialogue with an Iranian president and an American one in decades.
What’s more, Rouhani gave an interview with NBC news’s Ann Curry, particularly pertinent since she is a woman. In that interview, Rouhani stated once again that the Iranians only seek peaceful nuclear technologies, though with the Iranian track record, this statement shouldn’t be taken at face value. But it isn’t just Rouhani. The supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has talked about exercising diplomatic flexibility, a vast change in tone. And Rouhani stated that he has all the authority and flexibility to make a nuclear deal work, in contrast to Khatami whose peace overtures were not backed by the Ayatollah. The Iranian president also claims that Tehran played a major role in brokering a deal between Syria and the U.S.
Rouhani wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post entitled, “Why Iran Seeks Constructive Engagement.” In it, the Iranian president talks about a mandate for peace, hope and multilateral dialogue with the world. He outlines his ideas on what he calls “constructive engagement.” This is a completely new tone, and a 180 from the threatening diatribes of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani writes about the threat of extremism and against unilateralism. His mentioning of the bloodshed in Afghanistan and Iraq may hint at the fear Iran has of the future prospect of a U.S. or an Israeli attack. Israel has vowed to take every step necessary to safeguard against an Iranian nuclear bomb. It has taken out other WMD programs in the past, most notably Iraq’s.
The sanctions are taking their toll. But there are other factors squeezing the Iranian regime. Let us not forget the Green Revolution. After Ahmadinejad took office again after the rigged election of 2009-2010, Iranian youth took to the streets in mass protest. Though the revolution was crushed, it sent shockwaves throughout the country and the region. Iran hasn’t been the same since. The Arab Awakening has also made the regime nervous. In Giuseppe Lampedusa’s book “The Leopard” he writes an often quoted line, “If we want things to stay the way they are, things will have to change…” That plays rightly here. If the Iranian government wants to stay in power it has to depressurize situations from without and within. It has to stave off sanctions, improve its economy and also show it is making progress in liberalizing Iran.
We were here before. Iranian president Mohammad Khatami made overtures to the West and even spoke in Washington’s National Cathedral. Yet, Iran backed out of talks and continued its nuclear program. And a student protest in 1999 was smashed unmercifully. Rouhani led that crackdown. And from 2003 to 2005 he was the chief nuclear negotiator for Iran.
But times have changed. This time, Iran will give up its nuclear weapons program. Tehran is feeling more pressure both from its own people and the world body at large. What isn’t being said by pundits and analysts is that Iran is also becoming more isolated. Chavez is dead and Chavismo along with it. Cuba is showing signs of liberalizing. Syria is feeling the pinch. Myanmar has given up its weapons, sanctions have been lifted and it is opening up. Russia and the U.S. despite disagreements have enormous trade between them, as does China and America. Very few bitter enemies, and almost no very powerful ones, stand against the U.S. anymore.
Iran finds itself with few allies to stand with. If Syria goes down it will have one less. And if the Palestinian-Israeli peace process shows even tepid progress, it will have an even weaker rallying cry to galvanize Islamic fundamentalists. The impact of statements against Israel has been muffled by the recent wave of revolutions and the pivot toward democratization in the region. This has made Tehran practical. If we engage them diplomatically, fairly and hold them accountable, I believe Iran will give up its nuclear weapons program, leading to a more stable Middle East and a safer world.
By: Philip Perry