Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s 2013 presidential election has opened the door for a new start in U.S.-Iran relations. Many in the U.S. foreign policymaking establishment have welcomed the change in leadership in Iran, and many in Washington have seen an opportunity to solve international and regional problems through diplomatic engagement for the first time in thirty years. The phone conversation between President Obama and President Rouhani has set the stage, barring any unforeseen event, for a new path.
How did we get here? This is a question that no amount of explaining can answer. Domestically, while support for Rouhani’s election was consistent with the Iran’s reformist inclinations of the recent past, in the United States, we saw a shift in American public opinion away from the military intervention. The single greatest explanatory factor as to why the diplomacy is only possible now between Iran and the United State, experts remind us, is because many Americans have grown wary of military intervention by the United States, and playing “world’s policeman” has lost its splendor to the American public. International cooperation and diplomacy have increasingly supplanted the call for the military intervention. Weary of wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), hesitant about the use of force to address some of regional security issues, unable to contain the unbridled sectarian tensions in Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain, and crippled with an ailing economy at home, U.S. foreign policymakers came to a sober realization that cooperation with Iran could be timely and instrumental in meeting some of the lingering challenges in the region.
Under the pressure of war and ethnic and sectarian conflicts in the region, U.S. policymakers have seemingly concluded that resolving their tensions with Iran will have a positive impact on countries like Saudi Arabia and others throughout the Persian Gulf region, which could face further tumult and tensions. While the small but oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf seem apprehensive about U.S.-Iran rapprochement, bigger countries, such as Saudi Arabia, see wide-ranging benefits from improved relations between Tehran and Washington. When French and British foreign ministers specifically noted that the Syrian crisis could not be resolved through diplomatic means without Iran’s presence at the table, it became abundantly clear the European Union will be opposed to any further isolation of Iran at a time when the latter’s active participation seems crucial to resolving some of these regional conflicts. Under such circumstances, Washington needed little persuasion to follow suit.
Increasingly, aware of the fact that the Syrian crisis could adversely affect the outcome of sectarian tensions in Iraq and Lebanon, some U.S. policymakers have asserted that Iran could be part of the solution. Likewise, Iranians, under economic sanctions have turned their attention to the benefits to a dialogue with the United States over settling the nuclear issue. Needless to say, there are huge impediments, both regional and international, that make progress difficult. Neoconservatives in Congress and DC-based think-tanks, as well as the Israeli Lobby, appear wary of any compromise. Likewise, the Israeli government has clearly been rattled by diplomatic initiatives taken up by President Rouhani, whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has labeled a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” While many in the Republican Party insist on the continuation of further sanctions, Democrats are willing to give President Rouhani a chance to prove his determination and perseverance to sustain meaningful negotiations for the resolution of the nuclear standoff.
The question left hanging now is: Will the balance of power in the region be tilted toward Iran vs. its Arab neighbors? The short answer is “no.” Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinians under the Israeli occupation will offer a difficult challenge to any long-term relations between Iran and the United States. Both President Obama and President Rouhani are hamstrung by domestic political considerations that could potentially confine their ability to maneuver.
That said, the timing of future negotiations between Iran and the United States is of the essence. Will the sequencing of compromises be an issue—that is, whether the Iranian demand to remove international sanctions will be met first, or whether Iran’s willingness to open its nuclear facilities to inspections should initially precede the lifting of some sanctions. It will be interesting to see if Rouhani’s presidency provides the perspective necessary for breaking away from the futile and implacable approach of the past and toward a diplomatically constructive way of managing its relations with the West. Early indications are that President Rouhani is moving in that direction and this is a hopeful sign.
Mahmood Monshipouri, Ph.D., is a visiting associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and associate professor in the Department of International Relations at San Francisco State University.
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