News / Middle East

Column: Iran a Bright Spot in a Bleak Middle East?

Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani, waves after swearing in at the parliament, in Tehran, Iran, Aug. 4, 2013.
Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani, waves after swearing in at the parliament, in Tehran, Iran, Aug. 4, 2013.
As President Barack Obama returned from vacation this week – a short break interrupted by his need to react to the mayhem in Cairo – he may have been thinking that prospects for a major foreign policy achievement in his second term were fading.
 
Long-time U.S. ally Egypt is careening between police state and chaos, Syria continues to self-immolate while violence escalates in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain. Few hold out much hope for swift progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. Outside the Middle East, the re-set with Russia has hit a Putinesque wall while China remains at best, a frenemy.
 
In the midst of this bleak picture, however, there is one potential bright spot: Iran. With the switch in presidents from the provocative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the sober technocrat, Hassan Rouhani, there is a real chance to de-escalate the nuclear crisis and keep the United States out of another major war in the Middle East. Potentially, Iran could also help lower the temperature in Syria and Lebanon.
 
The U.S. and Iran have demonized each other so long and so effectively over the years that breakthroughs are difficult to imagine. But the old U.S. alliances in the region have come under new strains and a U.S.-Iran realignment is no longer beyond the realm of possibility.
 
U.S. and Iran calculations change
 
Calculations for both countries have changed dramatically in recent years.
 
For the United States, combating al-Qaida has been the major priority since 9-11, with nuclear-nonproliferation and democracy promotion a close second and distant third, respectively. For Iran, under the harshest economic sanctions since the 1979 revolution, the main goal is sanctions relief and reducing its isolation, plus acceptance of a role for Iran in regional security and economic arrangements.
 
Especially with the metastatic growth of Sunni jihadist elements in Syria and their resurgence in Iraq, Libya, Yemen – and potentially Egypt and Afghanistan – U.S. and Iran interests in the region are probably closer now than they have been since 9-11. The key, however, remains defusing the nuclear crisis – to calm the Israelis, Saudis and members of the U.S. Congress. Here, the signals are better than they have been for at least four years, if not since Mohammad Khatami left office in 2005.
 
In his first press conference as president, Rouhani side-stepped questions about direct talks with the United States but said Iran was “ready to seriously engage and interact with other parties” and had a “serious determination to solve this issue removing all the concerns of the other side.”
 
Rouhani’s foreign minister, the former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has already been on the phone with Catherine Ashton, the top foreign policy official for the European Union, about scheduling the first meeting of Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany – since April. Ashton and Zarif are likely to meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September if not earlier.
 
Mohammad Javad Zarif, shown here when he was Iran's ambassador to the U.N., is now foreign minister and will represent Tehran in any renewed nuclear talks.Mohammad Javad Zarif, shown here when he was Iran's ambassador to the U.N., is now foreign minister and will represent Tehran in any renewed nuclear talks.
x
Mohammad Javad Zarif, shown here when he was Iran's ambassador to the U.N., is now foreign minister and will represent Tehran in any renewed nuclear talks.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, shown here when he was Iran's ambassador to the U.N., is now foreign minister and will represent Tehran in any renewed nuclear talks.
Zarif, who will play a major role in the nuclear negotiations, has said repeatedly that nuclear weapons would compromise Iran’s security, not enhance it, and that Iran is ready to alleviate the “logical concerns” of outsiders in return for recognition of Iran’s rights under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
 
While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final word on such matters, Rouhani and Zarif both have a record of getting Khamenei’s approval to compromise and seek better relations with the West. Rouhani agreed in 2004 to suspend elements of Iran’s nuclear program; Zarif was a major contributor to a 2003 initiative that offered talks with the United States on all the major issues dividing the two countries, including the nuclear file, terrorism and the Arab-Israeli dispute.
 
Talk of moderation
 
During hearings in parliament and in an interview last weekend with IR Diplomacy following his confirmation as foreign minister, Zarif inveighed against “radicalism” in foreign policy and suggested that Iran is sufficiently self-confident after Rouhani’s election to show moderation, a code word for compromise.
 
“Moderation is rooted in self-belief; a person who believes in his capabilities, power, possibilities, and capacities can take steps on the path of moderation,” Zarif said. “But an individual who feels weakness and fear will generally pursue radicalism. The radicals of the world are cowards. Despite the fact that their slogans might be different, they have close and good relations with each other. Today, the world needs moderation and the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a powerful country, can advance its foreign policy with moderation.”
 
What this “moderation” will mean in practical terms remains to be seen. But while the change in rhetoric is not sufficient by itself, it is still important in creating the environment for successful negotiations.
 
While Ahmadinejad was president of Iran, any easing of the U.S.-Iran divide was jeopardized by his controversial remarks about Israel and the Holocaust and by his disputed “re-election” in 2009, with its attendant human rights abuses. Rouhani’s election – while hardly free by Western standards – attracted substantial popular support and was not marred by post-election violence.
 
In the context of a region in which more than 100,000 Syrians have died over two years and Egypt’s military and security forces have just killed more than 1,000 people in one week – including more than two dozen who died while being transported from one prison to another – Iran, which has executed about 100 dissidents since 2009, suddenly doesn’t look quite as bloodstained. Hopefully, the Rouhani government will substantially ease restrictions on civil society and free those still in jail for their protest activities in 2009 so that Iran’s human rights record steadily improves in absolute as well as relative terms.
 
During a recent visit to Iran, I found people to be skeptical about their new president, but happy to see the end of Ahmadinejad and less hostile to Americans than they had been a year earlier. In Egypt now, the United States can’t seem to put a foot right and anti-Americanism is at record levels. Saudi Arabia and its fellow Sunni monarchies have outbid both the U.S. and Europe in propping up the new Egyptian administration. Perhaps the Obama administration might find it advantageous to put more attention into achieving a breakthrough with Iran than trying to influence Egypt’s recalcitrant generals. The U.S. president might just achieve a goal that has eluded his predecessors for 34 years.

(To see more of Barbara Slavin's columns, click 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

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Amin from: Texas
August 21, 2013 2:26 PM
The US can achieve two things. Negotiate intrusive inspections, lift the sanctions and get the nuclear monkey off Iran's back. There are no nuclear weapons or plans to build them. By normalizing relations with Iran, you also put the Saudi & GCC influence under some control. The Saudi's & GCC have profited immensely from the oil sanctions on Iran. That not only makes them rich but bloated in the head.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

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