By Mansour Farhang
Last month, President Barack Obama telephoned the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. It was the first direct diplomatic contact between the two countries’ leaders in over 30 years. Mansour Farhang, the Islamic Republic’s first ambassador to the United Nations, argues that ending decades of hostility and distrust may be difficult, but not impossible.
Is an end to the more than 30-year U.S.–Iran standoff in sight? The historic Sept. 27 phone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – the first direct contact between the presidents of the two nations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution – certainly suggests there’s been a significant shift in attitudes.
Although the ultimate power in Iran remains in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the “Supreme Leader,” it’s worth remembering that Rouhani secured the June election in the first round by winning more than 50 percent of the vote. Rouhani’s stated goals to restore Iran’s battered economy and improve relations with the West clearly have wide public support. This is not surprising, given that 70 percent of Iran’s population is under the age of 30, and the youth unemployment rate is about 40 percent.
The public consensus seems to be that Iran’s economic problems are the result of mismanagement under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the impact of U.S.-sponsored international sanctions, which had little likelihood of being lifted while Ahmadinejad spouted his anti-Western, anti-Israeli vitriol.
Khamenei understands all this and, although he’s been cautious in his response to Rouhani’s 15-minute phone conversation with Obama, he’s generally indicated approval for Rouhani’s desire to improve relations with the West. Additionally, the Majlis, Iran’s legislative body, which is very much pro-Supreme Leader, has overwhelming voted approval of Rouhani’s performance in New York.
The immediate issue that has to be resolved is of course Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran has consistently maintained that its intent is peaceful: to generate electricity and isotopes for medical purposes. Israel, however, believes Iran’s goal is military and aggressive, and sees it as an existential threat. The United States and Europe have acknowledged such a possibility to varying degrees – understandably, given Iran’s lack of transparency and resistance to meaningful international monitoring of its nuclear facilities.
The Obama administration seems willing to recognize Iran’s right to enriched uranium so long as it is below weapons grade and peacefully purposed. By International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) estimates, however, Iran has close to 250 kilograms of near-20 percent enriched uranium – the kind with military potential.
To resolve the issue, Iran will have to degrade the potency of that stockpile or place it under international supervision. It must also offer IAEA observers complete and unrestricted access. In response, the United States would begin easing sanctions in what would be an important step towards the restoration of formal diplomatic relations and a general easing of tensions.
There is a long history of antagonism between the United States and Iran, however, and resolving their differences will not be easy. Each side says the other cannot be trusted. Iran sees the United States as in thrall to Israel and militant Zionism, and the United States condemns Iran for backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and is suspicious of Iran’s broad geopolitical ambitions.
As for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue as a basis for improved relations, both Obama and Rouhani face opposition and skepticism within their respective political circles. Although they are a tiny minority, hardliners in Iran still pose a threat to Rouhani. Meanwhile, pro-Israel sentiment in the U.S. Congress – the kind that buys into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s seemingly uncompromising stance and demand for a total end to Iran’s nuclear program – is a real political factor for Obama.
Some of the U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran are Congressional acts, and Congress has the authority to either annul or continue them. Obama’s challenge will be to persuade this faction that resolving the Iranian nuclear issue the way he envisages will actually be in Israel’s best interest.
A good deal of Iran’s anti-Israeli propaganda and hostility is opportunistic: It strategically uses the region’s anti-Israeli sentiment in order to appeal to the masses of the Arab world and play a role in the politics of the Middle East. An agreement concerning the nuclear dispute and a gradual normalization of American–Iranian relations would signal a serious change in Tehran’s strategic policies with definite benefits for Israel.
How skillfully Obama and Rouhani negotiate these uncertain and turbulent political waters will determine whether that already famous phone conversation in September signaled the dawning of a new age, or whether it will go down as a well-meaning but ultimately fruitless attempt to end 34 years of distrust and hostility.
Mansour Farhang resigned from his post as revolutionary Iran’s first ambassador to the United Nations when Khomeini’s regime refused to accept the UN’s recommendation to release U.S. hostages held in Tehran. He’s currently a professor of international relations at Bennington College, Vermont.