Since the election of President Hassan Rouhani last June, the United States and Iran have been indicating a desire for rapprochement. Such developments can pave the way for political solutions to the problems that remain unresolved between the two countries, particularly Iran’s nuclear program. Following a phone conversation between Obama and Rouhani while the latter was visiting New York, many have questioned whether this mutual desire expresses a deep transformation in the way each side approaches the other. What are the chances of the success of this attempt, or—given the historical record and the existing circumstances—is the entire matter little more than another failed attempt at resolving difficult issues with Washington, similar to those undertaken by Rafsanjani and Khatami before Ahmadinejad put a stop to them?
This paper discusses the possibilities for a breakthrough in US-Iranian relations, and the potential for resolving the Iranian nuclear predicament and the issues related to Iran’s regional influence. It also investigates the motives behind each party’s desire for rapprochement before, and assesses their chance for success and the paths such efforts may take. The paper maintains that Iran seeks a reconciliation with Washington as a presidential tactic supported by the Supreme Leader, and largely prompted by the impact of Western sanctions on the Iranian economy and Iran’s inability to bear additional punitive measures.
Thawing the Ice
The announcement of Rouhani’s victory in the first round of the presidential elections was paralleled with signs of clear change in the Iranian rhetoric toward the West. Signs rapidly began to appear, exhibiting the wish to start over with Washington, especially in what concerns the nuclear program. Muhammad Jawad Zarif, known for his extensive contacts with the US under former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, is Iran’s new foreign minister. Simultaneously, the management of the nuclear program was transferred from the Iranian National Security Council to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Iranian diplomatic activity during the 68th session of the UN General Assembly in New York revealed further initiatives toward Iranian-US rapprochement. Iranian Foreign Minister Zareef met with his US counterpart John Kerry, followed by the now infamous phone call between the countries’ leaders, both of which herald the campaign of reconciliation and prepare the ground for a potential transition toward a new phase of relations between the two countries.
Tehran’s Motives for a Settlement with Washington
There are a number of motives pushing Iran to change its political discourse and open up to the possibility of reaching a settlement with the US. Generally-speaking, these motives can be split into domestic and external motives.
In 2012, the US and the EU imposed a new package of sanctions against Iran, including a ban on the importation of Iranian oil and a boycott of Iranian banks. This latest round of sanctions was the harshest in a string of Western sanctions against Iran since 1979, deeply affecting the living standards of the Iranian people and the country’s general economic situation. Iranian exports were considerably slashed, especially oil exports, leading to a decrease in the state treasury’s revenues. These sanctions also prevented Iran from conducting international deals and transactions through the electronic banking system. As a result, the unemployment rate increased, as did inflation, and the value of the Iranian currency plummeted. Corruption spread and popular discontent sharpened in light of the stifling siege. Not surprisingly, the Iranian people sought new policies that could end its economic suffering and lead to a re-opening of Iran to the world. During his electoral campaign, Hassan Rouhani made these promises, which ultimately won him the elections.
Once reaching power, Rouhani identified two main sources of the country’s woes: foreign policy and the economy. He argued that reaching a settlement with the West over the nuclear issue is the only path to lifting economic sanctions, improving domestic conditions, and raising the living standard of the Iranian citizen. Rouhani summed up this view in a previous statement: “The centrifuges must keep spinning, but the lives of Iranians must also keep going,” an indication that possessing nuclear technology is not incompatible with the demands of Iranians’ daily needs and the improvement of Iran’s economic situation.
There is no doubt that the economic sanctions represented the main domestic factor encouraging the adoption of a more moderate Iranian rhetoric toward the West and the pursuit of rapprochement with Western countries; however, it is not by itself sufficient to explain the recent shift. Other factors need to be taken into account, including indications that preparations for choosing successive Supreme Leader candidates have begun. Before departing, the Supreme Leader appears to be rearranging the internal situation of the Iranian regime in a manner that assures the regime’s survival and continuity. In his view, the Iranian regime is facing enormous challenges, and will not be capable of confronting domestic problems while the confrontation with the West drags on because of the nuclear issue and the conflict over other regional problems. Thus, from a purely pragmatic perspective, Khamenei believes that the best way to protect the regime and guarantee its survival is in ending the confrontation with the West, or at least softening it and embarking on a long process toward normalizing relations with the West in the context of what he termed “brave flexibility”.
The US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 represented the epitome of Iranian regional project’s success, which began to expand after the fall of Tehran’s two main enemies. First, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US removed the Taliban, who constituted a fierce challenge to Iran from its eastern side; the US offered the same opportunity when the its military unseated Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iran’s west in 2003, particularly since the US military presence in Iraq enabled Iran to place its allies in power in Baghdad. Nevertheless, the US’s continuing presence in Iraq remained a hurdle to Iran’s vision of achieving geographic continuity for its sphere of influence, extending from Afghanistan in the east to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the west, where Hezbollah wields control in Lebanon and al-Assad sits in Damascus.
When President Obama reached the White House in 2009, declaring his intention to withdraw all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 and from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Tehran began to prepare itself to fill the void resulting from their withdrawal.
However, Iran’s dream was halted when Syria’s revolution erupted in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s main ally in the Arab world, as the last US soldier was departing Iraq. Despite all the aid Iran provided to quash the Syrian revolution, Iran was forced to abandon its hope of regional hegemony with the destabilization of Bashar al-Assad’s authority in Syria and the shaky situation of Iran’s allies in Iraq. In Iraq, the security situation was further deteriorated, popular discontent against al-Maliki’s policies increased, and the engagement of the Iraqi government in a full-fledged regional confrontation against the Arab Gulf states ensued.
All of the above factors played an essential role in pushing Iran to consider rapprochement with the US in exchange for providing its acquiescence to strict international supervision over its nuclear program. Iran decided to take measures before its regional influence collapses wholesale.
Washington’s Motives for a Settlement with Tehran
Domestic and external motives have also pushed Washington to welcome the Iranian overtures, and President Obama and his administration did not miss the opportunity to encourage Rouhani to pursue his diplomatic initiatives toward the West.
Obama’s political vision, in line with his desire to resolve international issues through diplomatic means and to abstain from involvement in external armed conflicts unless US interests are directly threatened, are the primary motives for seeking rapprochement with Iran. Obama came to power with the principal objective of ridding America from the effects of the US military implication in the Islamic world for over a decade, and reconsolidating American power in order to face strategic challenges in the Pacific region, especially those emanating from China. His vision also led his administration to focus on domestic, economic, and social issues, such as passing a government healthcare program, lowering the expenditures of the federal government, creating new job opportunities, and overhauling the deteriorating infrastructure.
Washington’s wars after the September 11 attacks have sapped the US’s economic power, propelling it into one of the most dangerous economic crises it has ever faced. As a result, the American public is hesitant to support any foreign war, even if a limited one, particularly one that requires the deployment of land forces, something made abundantly clear during the Syrian chemical weapons crisis. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Obama proved receptive to signals of Iranian reconciliation, which also conformed to his vision of resolving international issues through peaceful methods.
Obama believes that his strategy toward Iran is starting to bear fruit, and that the economic sanctions played an important role in weakening and wearing Iran out; likewise, the attrition of Iranian power in Syria and Iraq has major repercussions on the Iranian regime and its economic resources. Washington succeeded in making the cost of the nuclear program higher than its benefit for Iran since the program has sapped the country’s resources, causing an economic siege, as well as international pressures and sanctions that are unprecedented in the history of international conflict. Ironically, the nuclear program defeated its main purpose: instead of reinforcing Iran’s regional influence, it weakened it and has led to the weakening of Iran itself.
According to US interpretations, the regional and international circumstances—particularly with the Syrian regime setting a precedent in forfeiting its chemical weapons in exchange for avoiding a military strike—are ripe for reaching a settlement that sees Iran abandon its nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions against Iran and normalizing relations with it.
Prospects for a Successful Reconciliation
The mutual Iranian-US desire to settle the nuclear issue through diplomatic channels is clear. However, desires and intentions alone may not be sufficient to assure success. Iran’s new foreign policy direction came as a result of an internal consensus among the main power centers within the regime—Supreme Leader Ali al-Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guard, and President Rouhani. This agreement came as part of domestic political understandings according to which each party was awarded some of their demands. Rouhani’s cabinet was formed in accordance with Khamenei’s and the radical “fundamentalist” current’s wishes, not including any unwanted reformist figures. Moreover, in terms of foreign policy, Rouhani has promised to commit to what Khamenei calls “the art of flexibility and heroism” while remaining principled. In a bid to guarantee the consensus of the Revolutionary Guard, Rouhani called upon the Supreme Leader’s wishes, hoping to maintain its role in economic life, even if in defiance of the opposition’s wishes, which was adamant in its demand to prevent the Supreme Leader from interfering in economic and political life.
Statements lauding Rouhani’s performance in New York came from the Revolutionary Guard, the Friday Imams, and the parliamentary speaker, which indicates the existence of an unprecedented internal Iranian consensus regarding the need to revise the relationship with the West, particularly in what comprises rapprochement with the US, a formerly taboo topic. This domestic consensus also constitutes a response to the demands of the majority of the Iranian people, who believe it necessary to work toward overcoming the rupture with the US and the world, something they see as the entryway to confronting Iran’s escalating economic and social problems.
In the US, President Obama’s domestic position on Iran remains strong despite the pressures from the Republican camp, who accuse him of weakness in the field of security and foreign policy. Obama also faces resistance from media outlets that have publicly accused him, following his behavior during the Syrian chemical weapons’ crisis, of being a weak and cowardly president. He also remains adamant despite the pressures exerted by Israel’s friends in Washington, who reiterate Israeli calls for intransigence toward Iran and who describe Rouhani as “as wolf in sheep’s clothes”. However, nearly three-quarters of the American people, who believe it necessary to resolve the crisis with Iran through peaceful means, support the president.
There is no denying that the two sides will find it extremely difficult to overcome the lack of trust, a barrier that was built over three decades. Reaching an agreement will also prove challenging because the Iranians will probably seek a settlement that can guarantee Iran’s interests and posture as a regional power in the Middle East in exchange for concessions on the nuclear and Syrian issues. Rouhani expressed this formula as a game of “a victor facing a victor”. Rapprochement may not happen as easily as some expect in the absence of precise information regarding what Tehran terms the “flexibility and assurances” it intends to present to the Western negotiators in the 5+1 Group. Obama maintains that the international community needs to see concrete actions being taken by the Iranians.
On the other hand, regional and international actors who would be harmed by a US-Iranian settlement will do anything in their power to prevent it, and will remain isolated from the ongoing process between Tehran and Washington. Israel is attempting to prevent an Iranian-American rapprochement that does not fulfill Israel’s main demands. Netanyahu expressed this view when he addressed the UN General Assembly, and warned against falling victim to “Iran’s manipulation of the international community”. Turkey, Russia, and the Gulf states are also worried that the potential agreement between Washington and Tehran will be at the expense of their own interests. Such dynamics present a number of potential scenarios that can determine the evolution of Iranian-US relations:
Firstly, a decrease in the level of tension between Iran and the West would lead to the prevention of a potential military confrontation, though this would fall short of reaching a comprehensive settlement in light of the complexity of the issues being negotiated and the multiplicity of the parties involved. Another scenario would involve a comprehensive settlement of the unresolved issues between the two countries, resulting in an Iranian-American understanding that guarantees the interests of both parties, as well as Israeli interests. This could take place due to Washington and Tehran’s desire to seize the opportunity in order to achieve gains that may not be possible under different historical circumstances. For the Iranians, the desire to strike an understanding with the West emanates from an internal national consensus, with the blessings of the Supreme Leader, and in light of Iran’s receding regional influence and their own fears of further shrinking—a scenario the Americans have been anticipating for years. A scenario such as this is also compatible with President Obama’s vision of formulating a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. The realization of this scenario is largely dependent on the Iranian negotiator’s responsiveness to the horizon of concessions that the US expects.
Lastly, the Iranians would seek, as they habitually do, to buy more time without offering significant concessions while waiting for their nuclear program to acquire the technology needed to produce nuclear weapons, or hoping that their regional allies will be capable of overturning the power balance to their favor in Iraq and Syria. This scenario carries great risk because the West is insistent that the shift in the Iranian rhetoric must be accompanied by action; moreover, there is still the potential for military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if it turns out that Iran’s sole objective is to bid for time.
At any rate, it is clear that US-Iran relations are on the cusp of significant changes, changes that would affect the entire region. This necessitates that the Arab states, particularly the Gulf, be fully prepared to deal with these potential scenarios since they will be the first to be impacted by such events. It should also be pointed out that, contrary to popular narrative, the Arab position is not weak. Arab countries possess powerful cards that can be used to influence the course of US-Iranian relations, whether they head toward a settlement or a confrontation.
*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.