October 5, 2013

Rouhani and Obama: Diplomacy Amidst Conflict

    Saturday, October 05, 2013   No comments

by Jacob S. Havel
Khamenei and Rouhani
The recent phone call between President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani has historical implications. It was the first direct talk between presidents of the U.S. and Iran in thirty years. Nonetheless, the phone call, which lasted a brief fifteen minutes, represents the start of new diplomatic relations between the two nations. Ties had been weak and rife with contempt during the tenure of the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a far right conservative. However, in a political system that has demonstrated its ability to elect across the Iranian political spectrum, Rouhani’s moderate stances have lent him to propose openness to dealings with the West on the issue of uranium enrichment and nuclear energy.

It is, unsurprisingly, reported that nuclear issues were indeed the topic of Obama and Rouhani’s conversation.  Rouhani has stated that Iran does not seek to create nuclear weapons and would like to reach an agreement with the West within the next 6 months. The implications of those statements would certainly suggest that diplomatic improvement is possible. However, there are a multitude of background factors that underscore that possibility. Those include the Iranian support of the Assad regime, as well as recent actions by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu and Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and top religious authority.
 With recent evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria as well as Ban Ki Moon officially accusing Bashar al-Assad of war crimes, it will be difficult for President Obama to deal lightly with the regime. Furthermore, having backed off of planned missile strikes on account of primarily Russian misgivings, Obama has played the “diplomatic game” already. It is unlikely that he would be as flexible should an evident pretext for military intervention arise again. Such actions would indeed deal a blow to U.S.-Iranian relations as aggression against Shiite regimes hits close to home in Tehran. It is indeed possible that, to Obama, Assad’s removal is in fact a means of underscoring Iranian influence across the region.
In addition to diplomatic disagreements there is the recent case of veiled threats made by Ayatollah Khamenei. When faced with the prospect of American missile strikes Khamenei didn’t mince words stating “the U.S. will suffer…like in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Although not explicitly threatening, the statement comes along with intelligence reports of Iranian plans for proxy retaliation against U.S. embassies in places like Baghdad. If anything, such actions are a harsh reminder of the true source of “supreme” power in Iran. In essence, Rouhani’s words may not carry much weight, and his moderate stances could prove to be a shallow hope against the deep seeded goals of Khamenei. This is not to understate the popularity and political influence of Rouhani within Iran, which may indeed force small concessions from Khamenei and other conservatives. Still, the nuclear issue in particular has been a symbol for national autonomy and independence from the West. It is an inherent aversion to Western influence that could eventually prod Khamenei to reign in Rouhani’s attempts at diplomacy.
Last, diplomatic improvements, especially written agreements, will be difficult to attain with the continuing attitude of Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister was quick to label Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Matching Khamenei’s ideological intensity, Netanyahu has demonstrated a determined effort to avoid making any concessions to Iran. Given Obama’s firm support of Israel and previous condemnation of Iran, it is difficult to imagine a nuclear agreement that doesn’t include the support of Netanyahu. And while Obama has stood firm on many of his own convictions, he has also seen his foreign policy hopes overrun by political rivals such as Vladmir Putin in the case of the recently aborted strikes in Syria. This would detract from thinking that Obama would openly defy his greatest ally in the region in favor of a deal with a mutual enemy.
The phone call between Obama and Rouhani certainly demonstrate a step forward in regards to improving relations and resolving nuclear issues. However, Syria, Khamenei and Netanyahu are all powerful exterior factors that detract the priority of such resolutions. How the Syrian issue comes to be resolved will perhaps have the most significant impact on whether either side will feel as welcoming in the future. Only then could Obama’s already full foreign policy agenda begin to entertain serious diplomatic actions with Iran.


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