After 34 years of hostility between the United States and Iran, President Obama and his newly inaugurated Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani are poised to cross paths next week and possibly signal a mutual desire to defrost their countries’ troubled relations.
Both Iranians and Americans will be eagerly following the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, when Obama and Rouhani address the annual gathering of world leaders. They will be watching for a simple exchange of pleasantries between the leaders — a smile from the congenial Rouhani or a handshake from Obama, making good on his campaign promise to America’s enemies that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Rouhani has been making significant unclenching gestures in recent weeks, which political analysts see as reflecting new willingness to resolve an international standoff over Iran’s nuclear programs and the withering economic sanctions they have brought down on his country.
In the short time since his August inauguration, Rouhani has proclaimed Iran’s commitment to “transparency,” alluding to stalled negotiations over U.N. inspectors’ access to Iranian nuclear facilities.
He has kept a quiet distance from neighboring Syria and the brutal civil war being waged between rebels and President Bashar Assad, a traditional Iranian ally.
Tehran released at least a dozen political prisoners this week, the same day that Rouhani promised in an interview with NBC News that Iran has “never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and we are not going to do so.”
The overtures from Rouhani, and key indications from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he supports them, have Iran analysts on the lookout for an answering gesture from the White House.
“Rouhani is clearly coming to New York with the authority to pursue dialogue with the United States on the nuclear issue and probably even Syria,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president for global policy programs at the Asia Society. “One reason why the Obama administration is taking this outreach so seriously is that they believe the supreme leader has authorized it.”
Rouhani’s appointment of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a moderate with good back-channel U.S. contacts from his years as Iran’s U.N. ambassador, has also bolstered expectations of a new readiness to mend fences.
Zarif met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday, as he worked to prepare for the arrival of the Rouhani delegation. Both men proclaimed their talks an encouraging start to next week’s high-level diplomacy.
“I commend the efforts of the new government in Iran in promoting dialogue with the international community,” Ban told reporters after meeting with Zarif.
Zarif on Wednesday hosted a luncheon for ambassadors from several leading countries to which the U.S. envoy to the world body, Samantha Power, was invited but did not attend. In the absence of formal diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, U.S. officials are prohibited from visiting Iran or meeting with counterparts.
That could change with a signal from the top, should Obama reach out to recognize Rouhani when they encounter each other in the general assembly chamber or in the corridors of the U.N. headquarters.
“President Obama is the host, as the General Assembly is taking place in his country, so it would be logical for him to welcome the Iranian president, as you would any guest,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a USC engineering professor and former State Department advisor on his native Iran.
Once the three-decade-old ice is broken with some cordial gestures, the two leaders can pass to Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry the job of getting relations on a better track, Meshkati said.
Iran and the United States had close political and economic ties before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Leftists and Islamists set the aggressive posture toward Washington after deposing the hated, U.S.-allied shah, seizing the U.S. Embassy and holding 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.
Though official contacts are constrained, Rouhani will be the guest of influential think tanks and privately hosted dinners during his New York stay. He will participate in a panel discussion of scholars from the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society on Sept. 26 that will be broadcast in a live webcast.
The hospitality and inclusiveness are in sharp contrast with that accorded Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose combative oratory at U.N. sessions prompted U.S. delegation walkouts.
Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, describes the expectations of a turning point Tuesday in the long-conflicted relations between Washington and Tehran as “a bit of irrational exuberance.” Nevertheless, she added, the meeting could prove a historic juncture in the two countries’ relations.
In “Iran Surprises Itself and the World,” an extensive report she published last week on Rouhani’s emergence to the political fore, Maloney compared the Islamic regime’s turnaround on nuclear policy to its 1988 decision to seek a cease-fire with Iraq. The capitulation conflicted with eight years of defiant vows to fight on until victory.
The “barrage of publicity and overtures” from Rouhani and Khamenei “is the sort of thing only seen in the past when there has been a clear consensus around a certain orientation or decision,” like the recognition that the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war was imperiling the revolution’s survival, Maloney said.
Rouhani, a consummate insider in the theocracy, surprisingly emerged as winner of the June 14 presidential election on the first ballot after pledging to end Iran’s international isolation and to lift Iranians out of economic catastrophe. Sanctions have cut in half Iran’s vital oil revenue, as well as the value of its currency.
Maloney cautions, however, that “eagerness for agreement on the nuclear issue is not the same thing as rapprochement.” Iranian leaders continue to cast the United States as an enemy to be wary of in negotiations.
And the encouraging pronouncements from Tehran may represent only a fleeting opportunity for improving relations if Rouhani fails to secure any corresponding gesture of concession from the United States, analysts note.
“We have gotten in the past to a point where a deal seemed imminent, and then someone pulled the rug out from under it,” said DiMaggio. “All the signals are there but this is by no means a done deal.”