Friday, October 18, 2013

Iran Nuclear Talks: Global fusion or global fission?

In the early years of Pres. George W. Bush’s presidency, things had never looked better for US-Iranian relations. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was elected for a second term in 2001, and he was known as a reformer looking to reconcile Iran with the US for the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Although the terms “liberal” and “reformist” are relative – especially in Iranian politics, which are always guided by the Grand Ayatollah – he offered a glimpse of a “dialogue among civilizations” rather than Samuel Huntington’s famous Clash of Civilizations.

Pres. Khatami’s words were more than rhetoric. Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States at the hands of Islamist extremists, he was one of the first world leaders to offer his condolences to the American people and subsequently offered important policies of military support for the US invasion of Afghanistan. He promised that Iran would return any American military personnel that landed in Iranian territory, close its borders to Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaida, ask the Northern Alliance to facilitate US efforts in Afghanistan, and cooperate with Pakistan to assist in the creation of a new government. Since the invasion in 2001, Iran’s interests in Afghanistan have largely lined up with those of the US, and the country has provided important infusions of aid and investment throughout eastern and central Afghanistan.

Initial cooperation between the Bush-Khatami governments broke down following the Karine A incident on January 3, 2002, in which a ship containing Iranian-made weapons allegedly launched from Iran was intercepted by the Israeli Defense Force as it made its way to Palestinian militants. The incident was rumored to have been orchestrated by the Israeli government, which was dismayed by the warming of relations between the US and Iran. It is also thought to have sparked the last minute inclusion of Iran in the so-called “Axis of Evil” in Pres. Bush’s State of the Union Address just a few weeks later, now considered the turning point from the nascent atmosphere of good relations towards more aggressive policies. Khatami was later voted out of office and his image was significantly damaged domestically in Iran, where he was viewed as making important concessions to the Americans while gaining nothing for Iranians. In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a much more hardline anti-American politician, was elected as his successor.

This history lesson should be instructive to current US policymakers of the pitfalls of détente: it can be derailed by the slightest event, action, or even rhetoric. The recent election of relative liberal Hassan Rouhani offers a similar opening to improve relations. With the Syrian civil war gobbling up scarce Iranian resources, US-Iran interests might once again be aligned to resolve the conflict. Few other global leaders have as much sway with Bashar al-Asad’s government, and Rouhani would be a key partner in bringing the erstwhile dictator/war criminal to a meaningful bargaining table.

The nuclear talks in Geneva that drew to a close Wednesday were a positive step in the right direction. Long a thorn in American and Israeli policymakers’ sides, the Ahmadinejad administration’s stubborn position on “the nuclear issue” has been replaced by a willingness to negotiate by the Rouhani administration. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi expressed his optimism that the outstanding issues of the conference could be resolved in “as little as three to six months.” Discussions will be resumed in November, but already Rouhani has spoken to Pres. Obama by phone, marking the first time top leaders have spoken directly to each other since 1979.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been warning of dire consequences should the US and its partners seriously consider easing economic sanctions on Iran, calling such a move a “historic mistake” on Tuesday. His warnings have fallen on deaf ears according to a recent analysis in the Israeli news source Haaretz by Amos Harel. The war-weary United States and cash-strapped Europe have little patience for calls for a hardline against Iran, especially if it could lead to military intervention. Rouhani himself is risking a great deal politically, as the United States and its Western allies are still viewed by many in the Iranian population as "evil" or "satanic." As it stands, we are living in what could be an momentous time for US-Iranian relations. If another Karine A/Axis of Evil incident should befall the détente in the coming weeks, American policymakers would do well to remember what happened the last time the government overreacted to a situation, fracturing our improving relations with Iran and driving its government closer to, not farther from, a nuclear weapon.

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