Signs of an Iranian-US thaw.

[Note: I actually posted the following a couple of hours before the interview in question aired. I've since done a little editing to make the time-frame a bit less confusing].

On Wednesday night, NBC aired an interview that Ann Curry recorded earlier in the day with newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who won elections in June in a surprising landslide.

Remember back when I said that the situation in Syria is closely entangled with its relationship with Iran, and the American relationship with both?

Before that interview aired, I felt a need to list some of the various indicators that I’ve noticed since just before the August 21 Syrian chemical weapons attack that suggest that President Obama and President Rouhani are both intent on moving our countries away from endless enmity, and toward rapprochement, starting with:

In fact, I’m culling all of the following from a search I did within my Twitter account, but reading a long list of tweets tends to get wearisome, so I’m turning instead to that other fine tool of the modern age: The bullet point.

All of the following reads to me, in sum and in parts, like the careful public face of a lot of fierce whispering in back rooms and corridors and with the help of people like the Swiss, who have long served as Iran-US intermediaries.

  • Within six days in late August, the CIA admitted its role in Iran’s 1953 coup (see above) and also in aiding Iraq in its use of chemical weapons against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s; the latter admission came a few days after Syria’s use of chemical weapons outside Damascus. These are both huge, huge scars on the collective Iranian psyche, and are frequently used as short-hand for why Iranians cannot trust the US. The minute I heard about the first admission, I thought “backchannel talks” — and when I heard the about the second, I nearly danced in my chair. For more on why the first is significant, here’s Robin Wright; for more the importance of the latter, click here.
  • Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s new Foreign Minister, spent 30 years of his life in the US and helped negotiate the intelligence assistance Iran gave the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11 (yes, that really happened).
  • Iran’s parliament fast-tracked a debate on suing the US over its role in the 1953 coup (which is to say: The acknowledgement was acknowledged, but no one’s ready to say it’s no big).
  • State Department statement, August 28: “The United States respectfully asks the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to work cooperatively with us in our efforts to help US citizens Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini to return to their families after lengthy detentions.” (Which is to say: “It’s not like we don’t have genuine diplomatic issues pending with you, too. We respectfully ask that you attend to them.”)
  • Iran was intimately involved in the Russian-American negotiations surrounding Syria’s chemical arsenal.
  • A western diplomat told the press that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be dialing back the pressure on Iran in upcoming talks regarding its nuclear program.
  • “Rouhani seems to have chosen [the chemical weapons attack in] Syria as the first big internal debate of his new Administration.” – Time, September 9
  • Iranian state-run Press TV interviews Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; he says “Getting to yes is our motive for [nuclear] talks.”
  • In an interview held before the Russian-American-Syrian deal was hammered out, Obama told ABC that he and Rouhani have exchanged letters, adding: “Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult. I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy.” (Which is true, but also suggests that, just like Rouhani himself, Obama knows that even as he hints about a possible thaw in relations, neither he nor Rouhani will be served if he paints Iran’s President as a push-over).
  • Reuters: “New Iranian atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi pledged greater cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog [the IAEA].”
  • Der Speigel: Rouhani says he is reported to be willing to decommission Iran’s nuclear installation at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, if the West lifts sanctions.
  • Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who, according to the Iranian Constitution, is exactly what his title suggests; thus he holds ultimate authority in the country — told a meeting of  the elite military force the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC): “I am not opposed to correct diplomacy. I believe in what was named many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility’.” He also told the Guards that they must not get involved with politics, which, given the fact that they are in fact deeply involved with the politics of Iran; helped unseat the last reformist President; and were instrumental in the violent suppression of the 2009 post-election protests — is saying something. Note also that the IRGC are the country’s single greatest economic powerhouse as well, including in such areas as civilian infrastructure and engineering, and thus they are not lightly messed with.
  • Rouhani also told the IRGC that they shouldn’t be involved in politics, saying that this had also been the opinion of the republic’s founder, the Ayatollah Khomeini — and while you and I may have no fond memories of Kohmeini, he remains a powerful unifying figure for the Iranian people.
  • On Wednesday Iran unexpectedly released eleven prominent political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, on the eve of Rouhani’s visit to the US to attend the UN General Assembly. UPDATE: “In his annual message for Iranian New Year in 2011, President Obama specifically singled out Ms. Sotoudeh.
  • Also on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney revealed more details of the President’s letter to Rouhani: “In his letter the president indicated that the US is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes.”
  • In Curry’s preview of tonight’s interview with Rouhani, she reports that he told her: “From my point of view, the tone of [Obama's] letter was positive and constructive” and that “he has full authority to make a deal with the West on the disputed atomic program” — which is code for “I have the Supreme Leader behind me.” Oh, and he also says that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.

And hey, it’s not just me who believes there’s real momentum toward a major diplomatic shift! CIA veteran and Georgetown University professor Paul Pillar wrote today that

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran, he and his appointees have piled up indication upon indication, in their words and their actions, that they strongly want a new and improved relationship with the West and that they will do what they can to bring one about by facilitating a mutually acceptable agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program. 

Diplomacy is a messy, horribly frought business, and lord knows that the US and Iran have bungled many an effort to mend fences. Witness the fact that all that intel sharing in 2001 went absolutely nowhere — that indeed, within months, George W. Bush was referring to Iran as part of an “axis of evil.” Among other issues, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t appear particularly interested in any kind of thaw between Iran and the West, and as Pillar says, is providing copious rhetorical ammunition to any hardliners in the IRGC who would rather stay cozy with the Syrian regime and far away from the United States.

A lot could still go badly wrong, is what I’m saying.

But for the first time that I can ever remember, it feels like we have leaders on both sides who want it to go right.

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2 Comments

  1. Captain Button

     /  September 18, 2013

    But that goes against the principle that the only legitimate settlement of an extended conflict is for every single one of Their Bad Acts be totally punished while none of Our Bad Acts* are.

    * Which we didn’t do, even though we would have been Fully Justified if we did.

    Reply
  1. Pushing the Hardliners Too Hard | jafriedel

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