Last week’s historic events surrounding the United Nations General Assembly could foreshadow a fundamental shift in U.S.-Iran relations away from mutual antagonism toward peaceful coexistence. With promising speeches at the UN, a direct bilateral meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and a groundbreaking phone call between President Obama and Rouhani – the first since 1979 — hopes for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear impasse have never been higher. In fact, many analysts have speculated that Obama’s willingness to speak directly with Rouhani indicates that there is substantial diplomacy going on behind the scenes, and that each side has confidence that they will be able to reach an agreement. While an agreement has not yet been reached, expectations are starting to shift in favor of diplomacy and both Presidents have committed their political capital in the hopes of achieving a deal. Such investment will be required if the enormous distrust between the U.S. and Iran is to be overcome.
In their speeches before the General Assembly, both President Obama and President Rouhani have called for serious dialogue on the nuclear issue. Obama largely abstained from military threats, promised that the United States was not seeking regime change with Iran, listed a nuclear deal with Iran as his chief national security priority in his second term (along with Arab-Israeli peace), and directed Secretary Kerry to pursue a nuclear deal. The latter move has injected political clout into negotiations, matching Rouhani’s step to transfer the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry, under Zarif. Obama stated, “I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight — the suspicion runs too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship — one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Addressing the General Assembly a few hours later, Rouhani said that he had listened carefully to Obama’s speech and believed that the U.S. and Iran “can arrive at a framework to manage our differences,” if talks are based on “equal footing, mutual respect and the recognized principles of international law.” Rouhani repeated his vow that Iran would not pursue a nuclear weapon and asserted that “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region.”
Although Rouhani and Obama did not meet face to face or orchestrate a public handshake, which was subject to strong speculation, Kerry and Zarif did meet on Thursday along with other ministers from the P5+1. In contrast to previous talks, each side rapidly agreed to a new time and venue for future P5+1 negotiations: October 15-16 in Geneva. Toward the end of the meeting, Kerry and Zarif met privately for about thirty minutes, the highest level bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Iran since the 1979 Revolution. Zarif indicated that they agreed to “jump-start” negotiations and to reach a shared vision on the “parameters of the end game,” with a goal to finalize the agreement within a year. Each side affirmed their commitment to moving the process forward, rapidly, toward a win-win solution.
These productive steps were followed up on Friday with negotiations between the IAEA and Iran over how to proceed in stalled investigations over possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program – a separate but parallel process to P5+1 negotiations. The IAEA meeting was described as “very constructive,” and will be followed up on October 28 with a meeting that is expected to dig into technical details.
Also on Friday, to the surprise of many, Obama phoned Rouhani while the Iranian president was on his way to the airport. The two presidents expressed their determination to rapidly reach an agreement on nuclear negotiations, while also addressing other issues including regional security and American prisoners in Iran. After speaking through interpreters, Rouhani signed off by saying “Have a nice day,” in English, while Obama replied “Thank you. Khodahafez.”
Breaking decades of silence, the phone call received major attention in the U.S. and Iran. Rouhani returned home to crowds of supporters and was greeted at the airport by the Supreme Leader’s adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, though a few dozen protesters threw eggs and shoes at Rouhani’s motorcade. Meanwhile, a recent poll found that over three-quarters of Americans favor direct talks with Iran, while a whopping 97% of Iranians favor direct talks.
Despite these major and historic steps, hardliners on each side will maneuver to block hopes for peace and reconciliation. After the House passed new, embargo-like sanctions on Iran a mere four days before Rouhani’s inauguration, the Senate is set to consider a companion bill in the week’s ahead. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in an op-ed in The Washington Post, vowed to press forward with new sanctions, arguing that “the maintenance and toughening of sanctions and a convincing threat of the use of force” are requirements for successful negotiations. Further, Sen. Graham and Rep. Trent Franks have vowed to introduce a war authorization in the weeks ahead, arguing that it would increase American leverage at the negotiating table. However, either new sanctions or a war authorization would be a major signal to Iran that the United States isn’t committed to diplomacy or that President Obama couldn’t deliver a deal with a hostile Congress. Rather than inject themselves into the Iran debate and sabotage diplomacy, Congress might consider other practical steps – like finding a way to pay its bills.
Further, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who just held a meeting with Obama and is set to speak before the General Assembly today, never misses an opportunity to dismiss diplomatic prospects. Netanyahu argued that Rouhani’s speech “lacked both any practical proposal to stop Iran’s military nuclear program and any commitment to fulfill UN Security Council decisions.” Netanyahu has insisted that Iran must fully dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for a suspension of future sanctions. That unreasonable demand was repeated by Republican Senators, but few experts view it as reasonable or credible. The basis for future talks, as expressed by Rouhani and Obama last week, is a curb on Iran’s nuclear activities and enhanced international transparency in exchange for meaningful sanctions relief.