In June of this year, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, was elected to the office of the presidency in an Iran feeling the sting of international sanctions. Upon assuming office, the differences between Rouhani and his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, quickly became apparent and the prospect of a new era for Iran in the world prompted cautious optimism from Western Nations who have viewed the Islamic Republic with a mixture of contempt and suspicion since the 1979 Revolution. The charm offensive had begun.
Taking the stage at the United Nations General Assembly in what was branded as his global debut, Rouhani showcased a conciliatory tone highlighting a new attitude towards Iranian relations with the rest of the world, in contrast to the impassioned rhetoric from Ahmedinijad before him. Some were admittedly disappointed with the appearance,probably because they had expected more from a visit touted as a game-changer by some pundits. Nevertheless, The absence of the September 11 “truther’ conspiracies and Holocaust denial, which had resulted in Western delegations walking out of the assembly while Ahmedinijad was at the helm, furthered the thaw in relations which the relatively new president promises to bring. A brief phone call between President Obama and Rouhani,shortly before the latter journeyed home, ended a diplomatic visit which some have compared to President Nixon’s visit to China in the 1970’s. However, all were not impressed by the new face of the Persian nation.
Shortly after Rouhani addressed the UNGA, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to the stage and explained why he thought the new leader is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Old fears were reignited as the only suspected nuclear armed power in the Middle East once again adopted the responsibility of warning the world about the dangers of nuclear arms. Iran consistently asserts that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and that it does not seek a nuclear weapons capability. However, that doesn’t mean fears are unfounded and a nuclear-armed Iran is considered by any remotely sane person as a threat to global security, but no more than any other nation in possession of nuclear weapons is a threat to the security of our world. Netanyahu is right about Iran not having the right to nuclear arms, simply because no nation, including his own, should have that right to mass and mutual destruction.
Netanyahu’s Israel has not hesitated to make clear their demands-that Iran halt all nuclear activity and ship out all their reserves. To bolster this, he has, in characteristically hawkish fashion, frequently threatened Iran with preemptive strikes and so courted the possibility of a new war in a Middle East which frankly can’t cope with the conflict that already plagues much of the Arabian peninsula. To be fair again, the concerns of the Western World and Israel are not completely unwarranted and the fact that Rouhani was one of the very few candidates given the green light to run in the election underscores the Ayatoullah Khomenei’s continuing grip over Rouhani’s presidency. The new leader is virtually powerless without the backing of the same Ayatoullah who presided over the seemingly manic and obviously moronic term of Ahmedinijad-who threatened to “wipe Israel off the map”.
However, it must be kept in mind that Rouhani had run on the platform of reform and his election was a message from the Iranian people that they too seek normalized relations and were exhausted from tolerating the repression of hard-liners like Ahmedinijad. Campaign promises can be misleading, but Rouhani’s resolve to broaden the liberties at home has been backed by some action. From issues like women’s dress, to internet censorship and higher education-sectors where the ultra-conservative republic had previously showcased incredible narrow-mindedness-Rouhani has reiterated his support for reform. In a move which has gained praise from the international community, Nasrin Sotoudeh, the former prisoner of conscience and human rights lawyer, was released from prison along with others just a few months into Rouhani’s term. There is therefore an apparent sincerity, be it limited for now, to the charm offensive from the moderate cleric.
In addition to the obvious advantages of mending ties with a nation perceived as hostile, encouraging diplomacy with Iran will give Western nations a stronger chance of putting the Syrian conflict on a pathway to a political solution,as the bloody civil war, in which more than 100 000 civilians have been killed, rages on. Iran is a close ally of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad and may become a key factor in pressuring him towards negotiations-a factor that will be absent if Israel chooses to prematurely ‘cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.
The Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif met with delegates from the P5+1(USA, Britain, France, Russia and China + Germany) this week to negotiate the longstanding nuclear issue and signs of hope are beginning to leak from the involved parties, with US Secretary of State John Kerry stating that the window for diplomacy with Iran is “cracking open”, foreshadowing relatively positive feedback from both sides following the negotiations. Non-violent means, in the form of economic sanctions on the crucial oil sector, have played a substantial role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table and this will be useful to keep in mind for war-mongers like Netanyahu. The opportunity must be ceased to use existing oil sanctions as leverage, but also to deliberate the impact of some sanctions on the ground, ensuring that humanitarian goals are not pushed aside, as the Iranian people may absorb more of the impact of the sanctions than their government. By tying the nuclear program to their sovereignty and national pride, Iran has ensured that their right to refinement for peaceful purposes will not easily disappear, a notion which is beginning to be gain acknowledgement from the Obama administration. It seems then, that in the spirit of true diplomacy, concessions will be needed from both sides.
As talks move forward, a measure of weariness is justified and Iran indeed has a long way to go, both domestically and internationally, if they wish to usher in a new era and ease sanctions. But the delegates at this week’s Geneva conference and the subsequent negotiations in the following months must remember: clenched fists cannot shake hands.