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A new Iran-America moment

The question is: will both leaders step up to it?

Written by Mini Kapoor |
September 23, 2013 2:35:45 am

The question is: will both leaders step up to it?

So will they shake on it? Tomorrow,the presidents of the US and Iran will address the UN General Assembly and chances are they may run into each other and seal their correspondence with a cordial greeting. If Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani indeed do so — and they must,if only to honour the hopes radiated by their exchange of conciliatory letters — it will be,incredibly,the first such meeting between the heads of states of the two countries since the 1979 Revolution. Given the history of ties between the two countries since that overthrow of the Shah’s regime,a handshake may be all it takes to set the stage for one of the most remarkable transformations since the fall of the Berlin wall.

It will be an exceptional moment. When — if — it comes,do celebrate it.

In a series of rapid messaging,coded to show good intent,Iran’s top leadership has sought to underline the potential of the moment,one that could vanish if it is not seized. In fact,in an op-ed in The Washington Post last week,Rouhani specifically urged the US to seize the opportunity presented by his election. Dealing in phraseology that overlaid assertions of national pride with offers of cooperation,he cautioned against persistence with a “zero-sum,Cold War mentality”.

His case against blood feuds was prefaced on a changed rhetoric since his succession to office after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s manic Holocaust denials and generally free-flowing rants. His official account had tweeted greetings for the Jewish new year. Rouhani also embarks on this heightened diplomacy with the appearance,and substance,of the supreme leader’s support,evident in Ali Khamenei’s reference to “heroic flexibility”,the transfer of the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the foreign ministry,and his repeated reference to a distaste for nuclear weapons.

Where may this go from here? There is general agreement on the desired end goal for both countries — Iran’s retention of the capacity to enrich uranium,but not to weapons grade,with robust monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But given the short leap needed from enriching uranium for a civil nuclear power programme to doing so for weapons,for any such deal to stick,there needs be a transformation of ties and goodwill between the two countries. And as India is finding out how difficult it is to secure oil imports from Iran in the face of US-driven sanctions,a deal with the US is essential for other countries to fully seize their partnerships with Iran.

At the heart of the transformation would have to be two parallel changes — one in Iran’s internal atmospherics,and indeed power structures,and the other in the messaging the US does of its perceived role in Iran and its neighbourhood.

Iran,in all these years,has not been seen to have moved on from the temper of the revolutionary moment of 1979,one that’s laced with stark anti-American sentiment. The supreme leader and his inner circle,especially,remain alert to attempts at demolishing the revolutionary power structures. They suspect American overtures — such as there have been — to be aimed at regime change. They also suspect,and perhaps with good reason,that America watches out for the interests of its allies in West Asia,like Israel and some Arab regimes determined to avert Iranian hegemony in the region.

Indeed,just as Iran’s ayatollahs keep the mood of 1979 current,they also dwell on 1953,when the CIA helped overthrow the legitimately elected Mohammad Mosaddeq government and reinstall the Shah’s authoritarianism. It is a memory that binds the ideological spectrum. For instance,in a recent profile of Khamenei,the dissident Akbar Ganji notes how,after 1953,it was his ties with secular intellectuals that radicalised the cleric’s views of the US. Can the Obama administration adequately convey its sincerity that it will operate on no ulterior agendas?

It may be easier to pull off if Iran presents its better side. It helps,oddly enough,that Rouhani’s UN act will follow Ahmadinejad’s hysterics. Anything he does in his charm offensive will be that much more appealing when compared to his predecessor. More importantly,Rouhani comes with years of experience in government and the backing of the supreme leader. For now. That is why this moment could be so short-lived. For now,an effort at outreach is on. The Iranian leadership is especially conscious of coding its messages,and therefore no one buys the explanation that it was a technical lapse recently that temporarily restored access to social media,that too when prominent political prisoners had been released.

The question,consequently,is not only whether Iran’s president can keep the hardliners on his side as overtures are made to resolve the nuclear issue. Given how sanctions are biting,it will be easier to pull it off now than it may have been a year ago. It is equally vital to see if he restrains the guardians of the revolution from human rights excesses and from falling back on nastiness and aggression as a foreign policy tool. For this,he too needs more relaxed rhetoric from his Western interlocutors.

Amidst this two-step,India,with deep interests in a trade and strategic partnership with Iran,too needs to be more vocal in highlighting the need for setting the stage for a constructive dialogue.

The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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