Iran-US relations: is this Rouhani’s ‘grand bargain’?

Is Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani proposing a new way forward in thawing the relations between his country and the United States? EPA/Brendan McDermid

As the presidents of Iran and the United States converged on the United Nations headquarters in New York this week, optimism seemed to be in the air. Washington and Tehran have eyed each other icily ever since Iran shifted its foreign policy from “status quoist” to “revisionist” after the 1979 revolution.

Relations worsened further over the last decade with a combination of vociferous leadership and confrontational foreign policy decisions on both sides. But with a centrist US president in his final term declaring no intention to seek regime change in Tehran, and a new Iranian leader whose temperament appears the antithesis of his predecessor’s - stating he has no intention to construct nuclear weapons - could detente between the US and Iran be possible?

The grand bargain

This is not the first time Iran has made overtures to the United States. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Iran appeared to some as if it was ready to cast off its revolutionary mantle and re-establish ties with the US.

Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, a moderate Islamic theologian, had run on a platform of establishing a “dialogue of civilisations”, a policy that seemed to be welcomed by a good portion of Iranians given his landslide election victory in 1997.

After his election, Khatami struggled to reconcile his image with many of the conservative elites that occupy the byzantine power structures of the Iranian state, and felt threatened by his proclaimed liberalism. Khatami’s authority was often undermined and subverted by his opponents, leading to a prevailing international view that his regime was weak.

Former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami’s attempts to rejuvenate ties on the world stage were scuppered by internal opposition. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

Despite this, Iran did extend some real olive branches to the US. In 2001, Tehran provided assistance to the US in its invasion of their common enemy, Afghanistan. Perhaps most importantly, in May 2003, despite having been named as part of the “Axis of Evil” by US president George W. Bush, Khatami floated a “grand bargain” to the US. The proposal effectively laid it all on the table for discussion: nuclear weapons; Israel/Palestine; Hezbollah; even the vociferous rhetoric of the two states regarding one another.

However, the Bush administration - riding high on its recent successes in Iraq and Afghanistan and sensing internal weakness and “imminent collapse” in the Iranian regime - promptly ignored the document.

Time passed and relations continued to deteriorate. Khatami was succeeded by Tehran’s former mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who adopted a far more hawkish and confrontational position against Washington.

Ahmadinejad became renowned for gleefully playing up the ambiguity of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as issuing inflammatory statements regarding the validity of the Holocaust and the famously mistranslated denial of Israel’s right to exist.

A sea change in Tehran

Less than two months since assuming office, however, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani seems to be on a trajectory to redirect Iran away from Ahmadinejad’s legacy. In the realm of relations with Israel, what began as an innocuous Rosh Hashanah wish quickly escalated to statements on CNN condemning the Holocaust.

Others have noted the front-and-centre presence of Iran’s single Jewish MP at the recent UN summit. While largely symbolic and lacking in actual substance, these acts and statements do mark a noticeable - if indirect - shift in tone regarding Iran’s position towards Israel.

Although Rouhani’s statements against nuclear weapons don’t represent much of a departure from his predecessor, the political environment in which they have been made is important.

While Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei often remained silent in the nuclear debate during Ahmadinejad’s tenure, he has wasted little time weighing in in support of Rouhani. Speaking at a gathering of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) this month, Khamenei urged “heroic leniency” regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions and flexibility in international relations.

The context of this meeting was crucial, as the IRGC remained one of Khatami’s staunchest domestic critics. Khamenei’s own statements may be an attempt to reign in conservative elements and allow for greater cohesion in international negotiations.

For Iranian conservatives, the domestic timing may also be a factor. In 2003, many in the IRGC and Iran’s Supreme Council felt threatened by the rise of grassroots liberal movements inside Iran. A major concern was that any greater international engagement might coalesce into greater stabilisation within Iran and a disaggregation of conservative elements from their traditional power bases.

With the crushing of the Green Movement in 2009, such fears have effectively dissipated, ironically leading to the potential for greater international liberalism on the part of policymakers in Tehran.

A receptive US administration

The position of the US has also dramatically shifted over the past decade. Barack Obama has largely disassociated the US from the ideological rhetoric formulated in Bush’s “war on terror” and his commitment to “democratising” the Middle East. Although the US still remains the leading eliminator of alleged terrorists worldwide, this is justified under the rubric of traditional security concerns.

While far from isolationist, the Obama administration has also been marked by a decline in foreign interventionism. The US did significantly contribute to the effort to depose Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, but its footprint was much lighter than in Iraq and Afghanistan. America has also shown remarkably little stomach in intervening into the Syrian crisis, making a noticeable habit of stalling until a tolerable diplomatic solution can be generated.

One also has to consider the factor of legacy. Obama is in his final term as president, and has - until now - lauded over a shaky and inconsistent foreign policy. Although the US did choose to intervene in Libya in 2011, it turned a blind eye to the Saudis crushing a similar populist uprising in Bahrain in the same year.

Is US president Barack Obama ‘legacy shopping’ in trying to be the one to reopen ties with Iran? EPA/Allan Tannenbaum

If Obama were to become the one to “open up Iran”, it would certainly provide a historical distraction from his previous foreign policy inconsistencies.

A new security environment

Rhetoric and legacies aside, Iran’s security environment - and the subsequent need for nuclear weapons - has also shifted in the past four years. With the US withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 and an expected end to Afghan operations in 2014, the perception of a security threat posed by large American forces on Iranian border states will have effectively ended.

As late political scientist Kenneth Waltz would have argued, the greatest deterrence to intervention - even by a militarily superior state - is a nuclear weapon.

But with US forces pulling back from the Middle East and central Asia, and what appears to be a normalisation of a more classical “realist” approach to foreign policy by the US, Iran’s need for such a device to ensure its security may be diminishing.

A viable bargain?

With such a range of factors at play, the context and behaviour of the United States and Iran at the UN summit this week offers some degree of hope for the re-establishment of a direct relationship between the two.

While it is early days, and we have seen some public let downs, mending a 34 year-old wound of this magnitude will take time. Patience, understanding, consistency and mutual respect from both parties will play a critical role.

Will the US and Iran be able to sustain this? In this case, let’s hope history doesn’t act as a predictor.