The past weeks have seen a remarkable change in both the tone and substance of relations between Iran and the west, particularly the U.S. It began with Pres. Hassan Rouhani’s Rosh Hashana greeting in early September to the world’s Jews. Though such a gesture might seem at best symbolic, no Iranian leader had offered such a gesture in years, if ever. That the act had more than symbolic meaning was signified by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s immediate and curt rejection. He also called the Holocaust a “reprehensible crime” against the Jewish people.
Last week, cognizant of Iran’s faltering human rights record and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, Iran’s president released 80 political prisoners. He also penned an op-ed published in the U.S.’ paper of political record, the Washington Post in which he called for an end of bellicosity and the beginning of dialogue and diplomacy in resolving outstanding differences between Iran and the west.
In planning his activities during the United Nations General Assembly week in New York, Rouhani invited progressive Iranian-Americans to meet with him. He even invited Iranian-Jews as well, and brought with him a Jewish member of the Iranian parliament. Iranian-American Jews were fond of the Shah. They were enormously wealthy in Iran and have only grown more so here. They are politically conservative, even monarchists. Their answer to the president’s invitation was a resounding “No.”
Israel’s ‘Nyet’ (With Caveat)
Israel’s response has also been resoundingly negative. From the top, the rightist government has universally panned the peace overture. Netanyahu has called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The Israeli embassy tweeted a sophomoric mock-LinkedIn profile for Rouhani in which he listed his achievements in promoting nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Someone should’ve reminded the embassy staffer who cooked this up that Israel is itself a nuclear proliferator which refuses to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (unlike Iran).
Israel, it should be remembered, has long supported regime change against Iran. Its intelligence services, first reported by Tikun Olam in 2010 and confirmed by NBC News in 2012, have collaborated with the MeK to bomb military installations and assassinate nuclear scientists. It is a country steeped in fear and loathing of Iran.
But not all Israelis reacted with such cynicism to Rouhani’s peace offerings. Maariv, Israel’s center-right daily newspaper, ran a Hebrew translation of Rouhani’s Washington post op-ed under the headline: The Era of Blood Feuds is Past. For a country steeped in anti-Iranian sentiment, this was a major attitude readjustment.
There is a gathering consensus that now may just be the time to forge a nuclear agreement with Iran. Both leaders’ speeches at the UN, while they continued some of the hardline rhetoric of the past, seemed to point to new lines of thinking. Unlike the presidency of Mohammed Khatami, Ayatollah Khamenei seems to have embraced the Rouhani approach…for now.
There is also a parallel sense that the road to solving the Syrian crisis may run between Washington and Tehran. Rouhani, unlike any previous Iranian leader, has said that his country would support any Syrian leader elected by the people:
Radio Free Europe reported Pres. Rouhani sharply diverging from previous Iranian policy toward Assad:
“Whoever Syrian citizens vote for to rule their country, we’ll agree with it,” Rohani was quoted as saying by Iran’s IRNA news agency. Rohani was addressing commanders of the IRGC.
Rohani’s remarks marked a shift from previous statements by Iranian officials, who vowed never to allow the fall of Assad’s regime.
In today’s Washington Post interview with David Ignatius, Rouhani specifically affirms Iran’s interest in playing a constructive role in resolving the Syria crisis:
My government has full authority based on discussions with the Supreme Leader to negotiate any issue that is necessary to be negotiated to preserve Iran’s security and national-security interest. That includes any necessary cooperation at the international level to help settle the Syria crisis, ending the civil war there and to insure the right of self determination of the Syrian people. We would enter in any talks or meetings including Geneva 2 as long as there are no preconditions for Iran’s participation.
All this may mark increasing Iranian flexibility and hope for transforming Syria into a multi-ethnic state in which power is shared among religious and ethnic groups, like Lebanon.
In case there is any doubt about Rouhani’s resolve on the matter, he told Ignatius that he was fully empowered by the Iranian people and Ayatollah Khamenei to resolve any outstanding differences between Iran and the west:
…Settlement of the nuclear file is one of the responsibilities of my government. It is regarding the general strategy on the issue that the Supreme Leader also has his own views. You know that since I myself led the nuclear negotiations for several years, I’m quite fully cognizant of the general framework, in terms of strategy. So within that political framework, my government is fully empowered to finalize the nuclear talks.
‘Time (and Ayatollah) Waits for No Man’
But, as the president likes to say about Iran, there is a limited window of opportunity. Khamenei will not wait for years to see if honey draws the bee to the flower. There will come a point, if Obama doesn’t seize the moment, when the former will wash his hands of diplomacy and return to truculence as policy. You can even see an allusion to this in the sentence in which he states that “the Supreme Leader also has his own views,” meaning that they are different from Rouhani’s.
Iran’s president also alluded to the need both for resolve and speed in negotiating an end to the nuclear question:
The only way forward is for a timeline to be inserted into the negotiations that’s short–and wrap it up. That is a decision of my government, that short is necessary to settle the nuclear file. The shorter it is the more beneficial it is to everyone. If it’s 3 months that would be Iran’s choice, if it’s 6 months that’s still good. It’s a question of months not years.
Though he doesn’t say this specifically, Rouhani realizes there are hardliners on both sides who are going to dig in their heels and delay. The longer the delay the stronger opponents become. It’s why it’s critical to strike a decisive deal for peace now.
The following passage is critical to understanding the types of forces within Iran that might try to derail an agreement. It is also revelatory in the way it parallels the “securitization” of Israeli society (what I call the “national security state”):
One of the…pledges o[f] my campaign was to insist on bringing a cultural, social and political environment in Iran and diluting the security dimensions of society at the moment. Regarding the IRGC, it’s an important institution. It helped Iran emerge victorious from the Iraq-Iran war. What the Supreme Leaders said, and I have also said, is that the IRGC should understand and analyze political affairs. But it shouldn’t get itself involved in any political groupings or activities.
In other words, Rouhani bravely has taken on the IRG and told it not to stick its nose where it doesn’t belong. Can you imagine any Israeli prime minister telling the security chiefs that they have too much power? That the security dimension of Israeli society is stifling the full development of cultural, social and political life and that civilians must control the levers of the national security apparatus? What a breath of fresh air that would be! Maybe (shocking as it is) Israel can learn a few things from this man?
U.S. Anti-Iran Lobby
It’s almost never pointed out in the mainstream media that here in the U.S. we too have our own anti-Iran power bloc spoiling for a fight over Obama’s return to the negotiating table. Fueled by Aipac and the Israel lobby, along with GOP neocon hawks and Tea Party stalwarts, there is a strong anti-Iran contingent in Congress that wants nothing more than to torpedo any deal. In fact, M.J. Rosenberg believes that Aipac has the power to single-handedly undo any chance of a deal. I’m not as downbeat about prospects, but he definitely has a point. When it’s stirred, Aipac is a fearsome adversary. And if it feels its ox is being gored, it will stop at nothing to beat down this initiative.
In short, both sides, Iran and the U.S., have powerful, entrenched interests opposing a negotiated resolution.
For any agreement to be possible, Rouhani, Obama and pragmatic forces on both sides will have to rally for compromise. They will have to rise to “the better angels” of their nature.
Until now, both sides have pandered to their respective prejudices and shouted slogans. Now is when the real test begins. Can they declaw their respective hawks, get beyond rhetoric and come up with a substantive agreement–in six months?