Middle East

Iran and America: Little Cause for Hope & Change

Just a Telephone Call

Talk is just talk; even between the American and Iranian Presidents.  The world should avoid speculating on the soon-to-be detente or nuclear deal between the P5 and Iran. This speculation was kick started by both Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the UN and telephone conversation with Barack Obama.
Why?  There are simply too many moving parts, too much geopolitics and not to mention too much history in the way to see a deal emerge quickly, if at all.  When considering all factors, pundits and twitterati would be advised to curb their excitement until tangible results are truly foreseeable.

Communication and Roadblocks

Can this direct executive-level contact between Iran and America, a first since 1979, be seen as a step in the right direction?  Absolutely.  Talking on some level, even among sworn enemies, is always a good thing.  Those who argue that dialogue and engagement cannot solve anything, even with the most distasteful regimes, seem to ignore moments in history where even the US and Soviet Union engaged in high-level contact during the worst crises of the Cold War.

Communication helps foster a sense of safety and predictability; it should have taken place officially between the US and post-Revolutionary Iran a long time ago if it had not been for interfering ideologies on both sides.

So why will talk not produce immediate results?  The answer lies in a number of roadblocks; I highlight just a number of these below:

Weak Presidents

Obama and Rouhani are both in fundamentally weak positions.  Rouhani’s foreign policy mandate is essentially signed off by the Supreme Leader Khamenei, who himself is undergoing an internal power struggle with other regime elements to varying degrees.   One need only see the protests (along with celebrations) that greeted Rouhani upon his return from the UN to see evidence of deep divisions among Iranian power brokers.

Likewise, President Obama faces deep domestic divisions.  Obama has been facing an obstructionist Congress since 2010 and the current budget fight in Washington only illustrates the current intransigence of his opposition.  Obama’s paralysis on Syria, along with repeated rhetorical “Red Lines”, only further underscores his weaknesses.  With Syria, Obama faced a situation in which many Republicans allied with Democratic doves to send a message to the President with his proposed “limited” air strikes on Assad’s Syria in order to punish Damascus for an alleged chemical weapons attack in August.  Leaders like Putin knew Obama was in a weak position and fully exploited it.

Presidential weakness is most notable in circumstances where sanctions are attempted to be removed on short notice, as is the case with deals or even with “trust building” measures leading up to future negotiations.  The Iranian leadership is surely watching and will test the West’s commitment to a potential change to the status quo.  This is a test where the West, more particularly the United States, may very well fail.  Many sanctions such as those dealing with the National Iranian Oil Company or foreign financial institutions (Executive Order 13622) were passed by Executive Order and can be easily removed by the President.  However, sanctions, such as those passed by Congress during the summer 2012 (described as the toughest sanctions ever), must be repealed by Congress – a far more daunting task politically.  The GOP will most certainly politicize the issue and try to link it to other hot button issues.  Indeed, if the last three years is any prediction, Obama may very well be the next Woodrow Wilson facing a soon to be bull-headed Congress holding up one of the few potential bright legacies of his foreign policy.


On top of the domestic gridlock, the United States may very well face opposition from its allies in the Middle East.  Both Israel and America’s allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council see Iran as a threat.  It is unlikely that these allies would trust a more open and re-engaged Iran.  The chances of nations like Saudi Arabia and Israel seeing the Iran region as the fold of non-pariah states is very low.  It was only a few years ago that the Saudi King urged Obama to ‘cut the head off the snake’, as a reference to airstrikes on Iran (exposed by Wikileaks).  As well, whether the Netanyahu Administration is in a position to accept American detente with Iran is questionable.  A lessening of tension with Iran may very well push more focus on issues closer to Israel’s doorstep, such as the occupation or its tense relationship with ‘frenemy’ Turkey.

In case the situation was not already complex enough, the geopolitical proxy war in Syria remains firmly in the backdrop – Iran and Russia backing Bashar al-Assad and certain Gulf Nations and the West backing both Syrian rebels and foreign guerrillas in the Syrian Civil War.  Undoubtedly, questions on Syria will continue to complicate any future relations between the West, its regional allies, and Iran, along with nations such as Russia.

The Weight of History

If the above impediments are not enough to dampen expectations of emerging US-Iranian relations, one can only look to the tortured history of the two nations since the end of the Second World War.  One need only look at the West’s policy with Reza Shah, Mossadegh (the last Shah), and then again during the Iran-Iraq War to see a pessimistic pattern.   More recent incidents like Iran Air Flight 655 and the supply of chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein only further illustrate the historical accidents and policy missteps between the US and Iran.

Even in spite of a tenuous history, the US and Iran did have opportunities to cooperate into the early 2000s.  The murder of Iranian diplomats and journalists in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1998 served to align American and Iranian interests for some time.  As well, in a little-known anecdote from the coalition deposition of the Taliban in 2001, US forces imbedded with the Northern Alliance and Iranian Revolutionary Guards at best cooperated, and at worst, were on the same side in a battle in Herat, Afghanistan in 2001.  Finally, under President Khatami in 2003, Iran offered a “Grand Bargain” in which everything, including the re-acceptance of Israel, the nuclear issue and non-state actors, were placed on the table.  Unfortunately, it went nowhere under the Bush Administration and a decade of tension and policy changes ensued.

The outcome of the historic conversation between Obama and Rouhani will likely be bleak and lead to disappointment.  There would be more cause for hope if Khamenei was speaking to Republican leadership directly, as both he and the GOP will likely have more power to seriously effect change after 2016.  The constant (unfair) painting of President Obama as weak on national security by Republicans means that they likely, much like Nixon had as a diehard anti-Communist with China, have more political capital to actually change policy on Iran than Obama himself. Whether they do, however, is another story.

Ideology, history and geopolitics may very well undermine a deal in the short-term with Iran; long-term potential exists, even for detente, if both sides can demonstrate goodwill.  For now, the United States, under either Obama or the Republicans, appears unwilling or unable to effectively demonstrate much good will.