News / Middle East

Column: US, Iran Cautious About Talks

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, waves after his swearing-in at the parliament in Tehran, August. 4, 2013.
Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, waves after his swearing-in at the parliament in Tehran, August. 4, 2013.
Iran’s president may have changed, but the leadership’s reticence about talking one-on-one with the United States continues – along with U.S. reluctance to recognize Iran’s quasi-representative government as legitimate.
 
On Tuesday, in his first press conference since his inauguration August 4, President Hassan Rouhani danced around questions about whether he would support direct bilateral talks on the nuclear issue, suggesting U.S. behavior had to change first. Rouhani also was noncommittal about attending the September meeting of the U.N. General Assembly – an annual diplomatic gab-fest that provides an opportunity for adversaries to meet on neutral turf and that Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, never missed.
 
Rouhani’s caution is understandable if a bit depressing.
 
For 34 years, the United States has been regarded by Iran’s government as its greatest foe – the so-called “Great Satan” that supported Iran’s former king and is now crushing the Iranian economy with draconian sanctions because of Iran’s refusal to significantly curb its nuclear program. Even though Rouhani understands that the only way to keep his campaign promises of alleviating Iran’s economic crisis is through sanctions relief – which means reaching a nuclear accord with the United States – it is difficult for him to make the first move.
 
His path might have been easier if President Barack Obama had congratulated Rouhani on his surprise election victory June 14 over five more hardline candidates. Instead, the White House and State Department have repeatedly praised the “Iranian people,” not the Iranian president – a distinction that infuriates the regime’s elite.
 
While it is certainly true that Iran is not a democracy by Western standards, Iranian politics have a fair amount of open debate compared to many of the country’s Arab neighbors. Indeed, with Syria in flames and Egypt stumbling from coup to elections and back again, Iran after its latest presidential vote is looking relatively stable and responsive to the popular will.
 
New opportunities
 
At a roundtable with visiting foreign journalists earlier this week, S.V. Karimi, a senior official at the Institute for Political and International Studies, a think tank affiliated with Iran’s foreign ministry, emphasized “new opportunities” for U.S.-Iran engagement, including enhancing “people-to-people ties” and seeking a “win-win” solution to the nuclear crisis.
 
How to accomplish this, however, will require careful choreography and subtle messaging that has been beyond the ability of previous Iranian and American administrations and will also be challenging for Rouhani and his incoming team.
 
Rouhani, like all his predecessors, is sensitive to charges that he is selling out Iranian interests. After the billions of dollars Iran has sunk into its nuclear program – and the billions more it has lost because of nuclear-related sanctions – Rouhani will need U.S. concessions to be able to portray any deal as mutually beneficial. At the same time, Obama will need Iranian flexibility to be able to market an agreement to a suspicious U.S. Congress.
 
A diplomat in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Obama’s decision not to personally to congratulate Rouhani on his election was another “missed opportunity” in a long line of mutual diplomatic mistakes.
 
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, shown here with a painting of his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Khomenei, is the ultimate power in Iran.Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, shown here with a painting of his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Khomenei, is the ultimate power in Iran.
x
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, shown here with a painting of his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Khomenei, is the ultimate power in Iran.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, shown here with a painting of his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Khomenei, is the ultimate power in Iran.
During a previous period of tentative rapprochement - when reformist Mohammad Khatami was president - then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offended Iran’s leadership by referring in an otherwise conciliatory speech in 2000 to the “elected” and “unelected” portions of the Iranian government. The latter remark was seen as a slap at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of Iranian national security, and who is chosen by a clerical body that is elected.  By trying to elevate Khatami’s legitimacy over the Supreme Leader’s, the Clinton administration actually undermined the popular reformist president and undercut efforts at reconciliation.
 
Successive U.S. administrations have focused on the considerable flaws in the Iranian system. But prudent diplomacy would argue for cutting Rouhani some slack at least in the next few months – and especially until his cabinet of largely U.S.-educated technocrats has been confirmed by Iran’s parliament.
 
A statement issued Sunday in the name of White House spokesman Jay Carney was all too familiar, however. It expressed U.S. readiness to engage, but called on Iran to act first “to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.” And it again congratulated “the Iranian people for making their voices heard” rather than the man they elected.
 
U.S. statement faulted
 
The Tehran-based diplomat said the White House statement “could have been done better. People in the foreign ministry would have liked a simple clear statement from Obama congratulating Rouhani on his election. Had he [Obama] done that, there would have been the possibility to have American guests here” for Rouhani’s formal inauguration, which for the first time was attended by foreign dignitaries.
 
Rouhani alluded to this in his press conference, noting that representatives of “55 nations came to my inauguration and we have had congratulations from Asian and European officials” among others.
 
Why can’t Obama bring himself to say the words? Why did the U.S. House of Representatives see fit to pass yet another sanctions bill just a few weeks after Rouhani was elected on a platform of “constructive engagement” with the West?
 
“Of course there have been many missed opportunities,” the Tehran-based diplomat noted, “but there are many more opportunities to come.”
 
To succeed, however, both Iran and the U.S. will have to move, even if neither has the courage to go first.

For more columns by Barbara Slavin, click on the link below

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, 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

New England Bears Brunt of US Blizzard

Boston, surrounding region grapple with as much as 3 feet of snow, coastal flooding; leaders in New York, spared most severe weather, criticized for being overly cautious More

China Lifts Lid on Sale of Fake Goods Online

A recent survey found nearly 60 percent of a random sample of items bought from Taobao were fake More

Upward Aims to Create Old-girls Network in Silicon Valley

Lisa Lambert, an executive with Intel Corp.'s venture-capital unit, responds to the gender-disparity debate by creating a new social organization More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Godwin from: Nigeria
August 09, 2013 1:55 PM
One thing I know well about the US foreign policy office is that it is very constructive and meticulous in its action. Like giving them a lot of credit? It's not a praise, but to say that it was not an oversight if only a deliberate mistake not to congratulate Mr. Rouhani but the people. This is because the US office is sure that Rouhani was and is a set up by the supreme leader to try to get some of the sanctions removed. We know that he is very capable of rigging the elections to his taste as he did in 2009, and to say he blessed a so-called moderate candidate over his hardline stooges is not something you want to deceive America about. Congratulating the people is just so that it is on record that USA is aware something is happening out there and the White House knows what it is.

Rouhani however has been talking tough, a chip of the old block, a true son of his father Khamenei. If he had come with olive branches, the US would have seen it from a long distance, and would have, like the prodigal father, gone out long ago to welcome the prodigal son. But you can smell the hardliner in Rouhani from the past century even though he claims otherwise. So it is the right thing that the US waits for Rouhani to start the game, the whole world will see which direction Iran wants to drift, and then the US will decide which line to fall into. Don't hold your breathe so soon, nothing is about to happen yet.

As for the nuclear issue, I believe Iran has what it needs in nuclear power - military or civilian. The long time it has deceived the six-nation negotiators is long enough time to achieve what it wants to achieve. What remains is a declaration. But Iran simply wants to keep its nuclear achievement secret because since it is aimed at Israel which it believes has a secret nuclear program, it must keep its own nuclear program also secret only to unveil it on the D-day. But with harder pressure on its economy, Iran will turn it to a negotiating gambit just the way North Korea has turned its own nuclear program to its advantage.


by: New Progressive from: Chicago
August 08, 2013 9:05 PM
I am tired of hearing how the US missed this diplomatic opportunity or that. It is always some trivial thing like not congratulating the winner of a rigged election. What about Iran's missed opportunities? What about all those times it did not allow UN inspectors to review their activities? What about the killing of their own people in the streets? All the balls are in Iran's court. It is about time they did something.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visiti
X
Aru Pande
January 26, 2015 9:33 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video US, EU Threaten New Russia Sanctions Over Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama has blamed Russia for an attack by Ukrainian separatists that left dozens dead in the port of Mariupol and cast further doubt on the viability of last year’s cease-fire with the Kyiv government. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Kerry Warns Against Violence in Nigeria Election

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria Sunday in a show of the level of concern within the U.S. and the international community over next month’s presidential election. Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, and even music, are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. VOA’s June Soh met some animal artists at the zoo in Washington. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Saudi, Yemen Developments Are Sudden Complications for Obama

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the collapse of Yemen’s government have cast further uncertainty on U.S. efforts to fight militants in the Middle East and also contain Iran’s influence in the region. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports on the new complications facing the Obama administration and its Middle East policy.
Video

Video Progress, Some Areas of Disagreement in Cuba Talks

U.S. and Cuban officials are reporting progress from initial talks in Havana on re-establishing diplomatic ties. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (for Western Hemisphere Affairs) Roberta Jacobson said while there was agreement on a broad range of issues, there also are some “profound disagreements” between Washington and Havana. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid