For thirty years, the United States spurned diplomatic contact with the Islamic Republic of Iran, branding it an outcast and a pariah in the international system. Those long years of backdoor diplomacy and sanctions appeared more or less permanent – until last week, when President Hassan Rouhani of Iran called President Obama in an effort to mend relations between the two countries.
Rouhani was in New York to give a speech to the UN on Sept. 24, 2013.
In that speech, Rouhani affirmed the value of Iran’s democratic system, deriding the portrayal of Iran as the carrier of “presumed imaginary threats” to world peace and proclaiming that “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world.”
On its surface, Rouhani’s speech, which also accused the international community of “justify[ing] a long catalogue of crimes and catastrophic practices” through “Iran-phobic” propaganda, was couched in aggressive but vague language reminiscent of past Iranian presidents.
Nevertheless, Rouhani refrained from inflammatory comments of the sort that characterized his notorious predecessor, ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In comparison, Rouhani’s approach seems downright conciliatory, a development noted by some in the Northwestern community.
According to Weinberg sophomore Riza Tolga Ulman, Rouhani’s speech represented “a dramatic, unexpected change” in the difficult relationship between the United States in Iran.
Still, others have their doubts about Rouhani’s true intentions.
“[Rouhani’s] speech was a step forward, but it needs to produce actual results before I’m convinced his effort is legitimate,” Weinberg sophomore Alistair Murray said. “Still, it’s good that he is talking to us.”
The rift between Iran and the United States goes back well into the 20th century.
In 1953, Mohammad Mosaddegh, the popular, democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, was overthrown via a clandestine CIA coup d’état. That intervention in Iranian politics served as a rallying point for a populist Islamic movement, which overthrew the rule of the despotic Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979.
The decision to give the Shah asylum in the U.S. infuriated Iranian religious leaders, who wanted him to be put on trial, and encouraged young Islamists to storm the U.S. embassy on Nov. 4, 1979. The resulting crisis, during which 52 United States citizens were held hostage for 444 days, was a major factor in the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980.
After the release of the hostages in 1981, the United States and Iran drifted even farther apart, and diplomatic relations between the two were suspended.
Over the past few years, President Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, has sought to apply increasingly harsh sanctions to isolate Iran’s government for pursuing its nuclear program, which is seen by many in the international community as an attempt to develop a nuclear bomb.
Iran claims that its uranium enrichment facilities are for peaceful purposes, meant to develop a nuclear energy program. However, the current level of enrichment of Iran’s uranium supply has reached 20 percent, a small step from the level necessary to produce a bomb.
This fact has led Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu to doubt Rouhani’s intentions. According to Netanyahu, Rouhani is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” whose “soothing rhetoric” is contradicted by “Iran’s savage record.” Netanyahu may be among the most outspoken critics of Iran, but his reasons for reacting so strongly to Rouhani’s speech can be traced to the previous Iranian administration.
Ahmadinejad, whose speeches at the UN frequently prompted the representatives of the U.S. and numerous other countries to leave the building in protest, called the Holocaust “a myth,” vowed to wipe Israel off the map, and implied that the United States was responsible for the spread of AIDS in Africa and for the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Accordingly, Elie Rekhess, Northwestern's Visiting Crown Chair of Middle East Studies, has reservations about the strategy of reconciliation with Iran.
“While the new mood emanating from Iran definitely signifies a change of policy, one nevertheless should be cautious in not overemphasizing its long range repercussions,” Rekhess said.
Rekhess’ caution is well founded. Despite his evident moderation, Rouhani is still a strongly patriotic advocate of the Islamic Revolution. He served in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and was appointed chief negotiator on the Iranian nuclear program in 2003.
Altogether, Rouhani’s experience within the Iranian regime shows that he is a pragmatic diplomat, one who is probably willing to work with the international community.
The upcoming few weeks and months will be critical if the status quo is going to change. It cannot hurt to have a more sympathetic statesman than Ahmadinejad, but it is too early to tell whether Rouhani will back up his conciliatory words with concrete actions.
Above all else, he will seek to assert Iran’s position as a regional power, a position that has led past leaders to spurn ultimatums by the United States and the international community. Rouhani, like President Obama, will have to face down domestic opposition from conservative hardliners if he is going to make negotiations work.
Nevertheless, the risks of failing to defuse Iran’s nuclear program are too great not to make a serious effort to negotiate in the coming months. Israel’s security concerns are legitimate and should be acknowledged, but they should not preclude serious discussions over the problem.
Indeed, the only way to ensure regional security is to open a multilateral dialogue between all the parties involved and work out a solution that takes each country’s interests into account. This will not be an easy task, but it is necessary. One way or another, time is running out to find a peaceful solution.