News / Middle East

    Column: Cuba Shift Could Help Break Iran Deadlock

    Teenagers walk on the street in Havana, December 21, 2014.
    Teenagers walk on the street in Havana, December 21, 2014.

    President Barack Obama’s decision to transform the U.S. relationship with Cuba has obvious implications for the few remaining countries that lack normal diplomatic ties with the United States, especially Iran.

    While there are many differences between a resource-poor island of 11 million people 90 miles off the coast of Florida and a large, oil-rich nation of 80 million that is thousands of miles from U.S. shores, regimes in both countries have based their ideological legitimacy in large part on opposing the United States.

    For both, it is a complicated matter to trade potential economic and other benefits for the loss of what has been a convenient political scapegoat.

    President Obama, understanding the asymmetry in relations and the inherent vulnerability of these unpopular regimes, initiated the thaw in both cases.  With Cuba, he might have acted sooner if not for the prolonged imprisonment of a U.S. government contractor, Alan Gross, in 2009. Gross’s freedom and a swap of convicted spies opened the way for Obama’s announcement last week.

    With Iran, he took early steps – sending letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2009 – that only began to bear fruit after multilateral sanctions started to bite and a more capable and pragmatic president, Hassan Rouhani, replaced the Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013.

    Back channel diplomacy preceded the breakthrough with Cuba as well as last year’s interim nuclear accord with Iran. In both cases, Obama is using his powers as chief executive to relax economic sanctions imposed through executive orders and Congressional legislation.

    To completely end the Cuba embargo would require a vote by Congress. But substantial relief can be achieved through executive action alone.

    For those in the Iranian government who are pushing for a long-term nuclear deal with Washington, seeing Obama use his presidential authority to relieve the embargo against Cuba despite the vocal objection of some in Congress should increase confidence that he can waive key nuclear-related sanctions against Iran in a similar fashion.

    Indeed, in his end of the year news conference on Friday, the president made clear that he would employ his executive powers on domestic and foreign policy concerns whenever he determines that is in the best interest of the American people. A deal that keeps Iran from developing nuclear weapons for another decade would certainly qualify.

    Unlike the situation with Cuba, the U.S. and Iran are unlikely to swiftly normalize diplomatic relations.

    No one in the Iranian government is yet talking openly about reopening the U.S. embassy in Tehran, which has been occupied by government forces since the 1979-81 hostage crisis. On the U.S. side, a major impediment is the continued detention of other U.S. hostages, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, ex-Marine Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saed Abedini.

    But already, there has been a sea change in diplomatic contacts between the two countries. President Rouhani has spoken on the phone with President Obama and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif communicates routinely with Secretary of State John Kerry, as do their subordinates.

    Acting in conjunction with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, the U.S. clinched the interim nuclear accord with Iran last year and has put forward a package of proposals that would offer substantial sanctions relief in return for long-term restraints on Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons.

    Iranian negotiators who met with their U.S. counterparts in Geneva last week said the latest round of talks were “intense” and “very useful and helpful.” The goal is a political framework agreement by March and a final deal by the end of June.

    If an agreement is reached, Iran’s Supreme Leader is likely to echo Cuban President Raul Castro and insist that the Islamic Republic has not compromised its basic principles. Khamenei will assert that it is the “Great Satan” that has buckled by accepting uranium enrichment and other elements of a full-scale nuclear program on Iranian soil.

    Indeed, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Akfham issued a statement Saturday asserting that the U.S. shift on Cuba means that the “policies of isolation and sanctions imposed by the major powers against the wishes of independent nations are ineffective.”

    But signing a major deal with the U.S. would have far-reaching implications beyond nonproliferation.

    For the past 35 years, Iranian leaders have vilified the United States as an “arrogant” and malign actor in regional and global affairs. Much as the Castro regime has blamed its poor economic performance on the 54-year-old U.S. embargo, Iranian officials have accused successive U.S. administrations of seeking to cripple the Iranian economy to punish Iran for its “independent” policies supporting the Palestinians and other oppressed groups.

    To sign a long-term compact with Washington means that Iran has chosen to trust this nefarious adversary to live up to its promises. An end to the nuclear standoff would also open the door to closer cooperation on regional crises, including Iraq and Syria.

    In economic terms, U.S. companies would be slow to benefit. European businesses would be the first to return to Iran en masse, but some U.S. firms – such as Boeing – would jump at the chance to refurbish Iran’s antique civilian airplane stock.

    U.S. makers of consumer goods and electronics would also find a welcome market in Iran, where American products have a special cachet. More U.S. tourists would be lured by Iran’s ancient artifacts and sophisticated modern culture.

    While formal diplomatic recognition is a way off, it may be possible to send American diplomats to staff an Interests Section in Tehran to process visas and provide services for American citizens. As with Cuba, where Americans have served in such an office since 1977, that would make it easier to re-establish formal ties when the time is right.

    Upgrading relations with the United States does not guarantee that authoritarian regimes will crumble or even enact major economic and political reforms. In both Cuba and Iran, change is likely to be gradual as both societies have learned through bitter experience that their violent revolutions failed to deliver on their promises of greater freedom and prosperity. But it will be harder for these regimes to blame the United States for all that is lacking in their societies and to filter out U.S. influence.

    For now, it is heartening to see President Obama shake up the geopolitical order and take the initiative with such states rather than plod along enforcing a failed status quo.

    As he said last week, “My presidency is entering the fourth quarter; interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.” Drawing Iran back into the international community would be interesting indeed.

    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

    You May Like

    Syrian Torture Victim Recounts Horrors

    'You make them think you have surrendered' says Jalal Nofal, a doctor who was jailed and survived repeated interrogations in Syria

    Mandela’s Millions Paid to Heirs, But Who Gets His Country Home?

    Saga around $3 million estate of country's first democratic president is far from over as Winnie Mandela’s fight for home overshadows payouts

    Guess Which Beach is 'Best in the US'?

    Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay tops an annual "top 10" list compiled by a coastal scientist, also known as Doctor Beach

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora