Rowena Abdul Razak
Last updated: 7 October, 2013

“Would it be possible for Iran to risk losing its foothold in the region for improved relations with the West?”

President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani are pictured in a historic moment, shaking hands and smiling in Washington DC, following the reestablishment of US-Iran relations. This is a moment months, even years, in the making, following a series of exchanges, meetings between both Foreign Secretaries, and reconciliatory gestures.

A few years ago, this seemed like an impossible fantasy. The notion of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Obama shaking hands seemed like the start of a bad joke (“What happened when Ahmadinejad and Obama walked into a bar?”). Today, however, the image of Obama and Rouhani together on the front page of every major daily does not seem wholly improbable.

The Islamic regime has become the master of adapting

Rouhani and Obama have already spoken on the phone, agreeing to seek a nuclear solution. The US had already indicated that they were open to informal talks with the Iranian government but it was the Iranians who really pushed for the phone call. It was the first direct contact between any US and Iranian president in over thirty years. In other words: a pretty epic development. This certainly is the first step to even more direct contact between the two leaders.

It has already proved to be quite an eventful year for US-Iran relations. August 19 marked the 60thanniversary of the British planned and CIA executed coup that overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq who had nationalised Iranian oil two years previously. The coup not only ended the oil crisis, but also formalised the Shah’s reliance on his American allies.

Although Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, admitted to US involvement in the coup, it continued to be an incredibly important event that marks the collective Iranian psyche, resulting in a deep mistrust towards the US. This year, the anniversary did not go unnoticed and the National Security Archive released important documents confirming the CIA’s involvement in the coup. Could this be a gingerly step towards reconciliation, an attempt to start the healing process?

British Foreign Secretary William Hague held talks with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif very recently, ending positively and we might even see the reopening of the British Embassy in Tehran soon. But don’t me quote on that. Anything can and does happen.

The smiling mullah Rouhani so far appears to be on the right track and despite his religious training, gives the impression of being more progressive than his neoconservative but secular predecessor Ahmadinejad. He has appointed women and Zoroastrians into government, been more inclusive of the Jewish community in Iran, released a number of political prisoners, and seems less hardline in his approach. On paper, he is a man the US can do business with.

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Rouhani’s approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been key. By calling for nuclear talks and categorically stating that Iran would not build a nuclear weapon (instead of following Ahmadinejad’s defensive stance), Rouhani has focused on direct negotiation and discussion with Western governments. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif recently joined his counterparts from the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany at the United Nations in New York to discuss his country’s nuclear programme.

Such gestures would pave the way to improved relations, thereby enhancing not only international conditions but also helping to pacify domestic woes. The hyperinflation of the Iranian Rial affected by crippling sanctions has brought unnecessary hardship to the average Iranian citizen and made daily life in the country extremely trying.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has already made positive remarks about Iran, and although Washington has made similar declarations in the past these new events coupled with Iran’s initiatives do show that this time, both sides are serious. These developments are positive in nature but there is a chance that the outcome may not be as reactionary as one would hope, especially if the anti-Iran lobby (coming loud and clear from Israel and Saudi Arabia) is strong enough.

It still seems to be quite a long way to go, with many more obstacles to cross before we can even see normalcy between Iran and the US. Anything can develop or regress – and in no time at all. But in order to avoid becoming the Cassandra of US-Iran relations, let us hypothetically imagine and analyse what the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran could entail.

Iran and the US have a lot of unfinished business in the region

The most ideal situation would result in good relations with the West and among the region’s countries. As already hinted, Israel and Saudi Arabia would be somewhat concerned that their own lines of support from the US would be compromised. Strong diplomatic ties could be created between the Saudi kingdom and the Iranian theocracy, with the US President as the main negotiator. Israel, more diplomatically isolated than before might be more willing to deal with the Palestinians under the supervision of the region. In Syria, the Iranian regime would assert more pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate with the rebels. Sunni-Shia relations, following the strong ties between Riyadh and Tehran, could be improved and we might enter a new era of calm. The sanctions will be cancelled and the Iranian economy might even flourish. In other words, we would experience basic stability in the Middle East.  

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However, we do not live in a perfect world, and the Middle East is riddled with complexities. Iran and the US have a lot of unfinished business in the region, whether it’s the war in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon or the insurgents in Iraq. Would it be possible for Iran to risk losing its foothold in the region for improved relations with the West? Since 1979, it has established and consolidated its position as a non-Arab Shi’a powerhouse. Through Hezbollah, Tehran has actively involved itself in the fight against Israel and through it maintained an important presence in the Levant. This has brought it much support from the Arab population, who do not consider their own governments as doing “enough” for the Palestinians.

Tehran’s continued support for the Assad regime is incredibly strong, and they have shown themselves to be interested in seeking out a diplomatic solution. Together with Russia, they have formed a strong bloc against the US – particularly a few weeks ago when Obama and some European leaders were bent on invading Syria. While things have calmed down somewhat, the talks between Washington DC and Tehran will invariably turn to seeking a solution on Syria, once/if the nuclear issue is resolved. It might even be the true test if compromise can work between the two governments, or as Foreign Affairs recently and succinctly described them, “frenemies”. 

Then again, times are changing and the Islamic regime has become the master of adapting. Moving on from the disastrous presidency of Ahmadinejad, Rouhani has been elected and his palatable policies have so far shown that he could very well be the one to oversee the normalisation of relations with the US. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has so far shown no objection to Iran’s willingness to not only participate but also compromise on the nuclear issue. As long as momentum is kept up on both sides and Obama is able to compromise, pacify Israel and willing to lift the crippling economic sanctions, we could be heading towards some interesting times indeed. So perhaps, the best is yet to come. 

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