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The US, Iran and the Shifting Sands of Middle East Peace

The US, Iran and the Shifting Sands of Middle East Peace

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the UN last week appears to be a further indication of a change in Iran’s strategy in its dealings with the West. After years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bellicose rhetoric and confrontational posturing, the Iranian regime has taken a much more conciliatory stance since Rouhani’s election earlier this summer. Iranian nuclear ambitions have dominated relations between Iran and the West, and the United States in particular. As Sara Bazoobandi writes,

Recently elected president Rouhani made a direct reference to the issue in his speech at the UN General Assembly, stating that a military nuclear programme would be against the government’s religious principles. Iran’s new leadership has taken a more focused approach to prove the civilian nature of the country’s nuclear programme. And for the first time since 2005, Iran has said it is willing to review limits in the level to which it enriches uranium. Iranian officials have insisted on the importance of the enrichment and have argued that the process will not be suspended; but that they are ready to discuss the framework, level, method and site of enrichment.

This change in the Iranian approach – and the conciliatory response from President Obama – has caused somewhat of a “peace panic“, in the words of Middle East scholar Ervand Abrahamian. The prospect of a rapprochement between the US and Iran has clearly been cause for alarm in some quarters:

Even before Rouhani had arrived at the UN, Binyamin Netanyahu warned that he was a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, as dangerous as his Holocaust-denying predecessor, and that the Iranian olive branch was really a ‘honey trap’. Israel’s UN ambassador admitted she missed Ahmadinejad and said Iran was trying to gain time to build nuclear bombs. Seventy-six senators and two hundred congressmen signed a letter to Obama calling on the White Hour to toughen the already tough sanctions on Iran.

This is perhaps to be expected, as the now-dominant political factions in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries have much to lose form a change in the status quo. Indeed, the pushback from Israel has “been nothing short of relentless” writes former Israeli diplomat Daniel Levy for Foreign Policy.

What we might expect in the coming weeks and months? Iran expert Gary Sick offers some measured hopefulness…

There is a long way to go, and each side will necessarily have to reexamine its maximalist positions in the course of what are certain to be difficult and complex negotiations. In addition to President Rouhani, the Iranian team is composed of graduates from the University of Denver (Foreign Minister Zarif), George Washington University (Chief of Staff Nahavandian), and MIT (IAEA Representative Salehi and Vice President Najafi), among others. This is the last generation of Iranian revolutionaries with deep knowledge of the West. As the Iranians emphasized in their private meetings, this favorable constellation of interests and individuals who are willing to take risks for détente in the wake of Rouhani’s unexpected electoral victory earlier this year can never be repeated. President Obama, himself a lame duck, may feel much the same way.

In the next few weeks, there will be a barrage of assertions by international officials and commentators that the Iranian offer is a sham and should be rejected. Some of those comments will come from Israel and from the US Congress, but there will be others from Saudi Arabia and the Arab monarchies, all of whom fear a US-Iranian rapprochement as a threat to their own narrow interests.

The history of US relations with Iran is littered with missed opportunities, almost always rejected for misguided domestic reasons on the part of either Iran or the United States. While it is regrettable that the current discussions are starting ten years late, both presidents seem to recognize that they are now urgent. The dramatic change in tone is an important first step and was unthinkable before this year’s Iranian election. But words are no longer sufficient. Both sides are preparing their presentations for the first serious negotiation of the new era in Geneva just two weeks from now. We shall see.


Read More:

Gary Sick – Iran Opens Its Fist

Ervand Abrahamian – Peace Panic

Kevan Harris – Iran, the Twenty-First-Century Island of Stability

Sara Bazoobandi – What’s Driving Iran’s Shift? – Chatham House

Daniel Levy – Maximum Bibi – Foreign Policy

Wikimedia Commons image courtesy of Pete Souza (Whitehouse)

Posted in: Iran, Middle East

About the Author:

William Oliver is Nabateans’ editor for international economics and Middle East current affairs. He obtained his degree in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. While his studies focused on the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries, William has a long-standing interest in international finance and the political economy of development. William’s work is aimed at understanding how the Middle East integrates with the global economy, and into the wider geopolitical landscape.

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