Originally Published 2013-09-26 05:13:23 Published on Sep 26, 2013
The US may have lost interest in Iraq, but in Syria if it truly desires a diplomatic solution, then Iran has to be brought on board. This is what even the French are telling them. But will the US take the extended hand.
Will the US take Iran's extended hand?
" Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's article in the Washington Post on 19th September, followed by the respective speeches of Presidents Obama and Rouhani at the UNGA on 23/24th September, may well have set the beginnings of new terms of engagement for the two countries that have been hostile since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The Iranian President set out the terms of 'constructive engagement' in the Washington Post with such clarity that they appear to be 'self evident truths', to use the language of the founding fathers of the American Constitution. He wrote:

a) it is — or should be — counterintuitive to pursue one's interests without considering the interests of others.

b) A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn't mean relinquishing one's rights. It means engaging with one's counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives.

c) Win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable. A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone's loss.

Writing about the most thorny issue, the Iranian nuclear programme, President Rouhani said that it was not about nuclear weapon at all, but all about 'identity'. "The centrality of identity extends to the case of our peaceful nuclear energy program. To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle..... it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world. Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved", wrote the Iranian President. Well, that should clarify a lot. Later in his speech to the UN, he declared that "Iran poses no threat to the security of the region.... and that a nuclear weapon or any kind of WMD is neither a part of its defence doctrine nor is it permitted by its religion". Earlier in a TV interview, he had assured "Iran will never produce a bomb, as Iran is against all kinds of WMDs". These words had clearly encouraged Obama to reciprocate in kind.

President Rouhani is trying to convey that Iran has an identity far beyond what it is caricatured in the West as 'an extremist Islamic Republic desperately trying to get a nuclear weapon so that it can wipe off Israel from the face of the earth'. Well, his predecessor Ahmedinejad did much to promote such an image. But the central problem that all Iranian leaders have sought to focus is that Iran is not being recognised for what it is worth, that it is a 'regional power' with credible military prowess having a strong army, air force, and navy (despite a 8-year war with Iraq), a fully functioning missile programme, an incipient space programme and an advanced nuclear programme (that has now put the fear of God in Israel).

Iran is calling on the US to recognise a reality, which it has ignored at its peril, for the last three decades and more so, since 9/11. It is not well known that Iran was one of the first states to offer its air-space to America to fly down its missiles on to Kabul to target the Taliban, in the weeks after 9/11. Had America done so, it might have probably wrapped up its war on terror much earlier than the bends through which its front-line ally, Pakistan has taken it.

When Rouhani asked Obama to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives, he is reminding him of the several key areas that Iran can assist the US in achieving its objectives in the region; be it Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or in guaranteeing the security of Israel.

In Afghanistan, Iran has gone beyond supporting its traditional constituency -- the Hazaras and the Tajiks, and is now supporting the devil itself, i.e., the Taliban but only as a means to fight the great Satan -- the US.

In Iraq and Syria, both Nuri al-Maliki and Bashar al- Assad are greatly obliged to Tehran for their continuance in office. If the Ayotallah sneezes, they are bound to catch a cold. America may have lost interest in Iraq, but in Syria if it truly desires a diplomatic solution, then Iran has to be brought on board. This is not what the Russians are telling them. Even the French are telling the same.

But will America take the extended hand. President Obama has said all the right things. He talked of "achieving a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that its program is peaceful." While the first part would be interpreted in Tehran as American recognition and acceptance of Iran's right to peaceful nuclear programme (a right consistently denied by Israel), the second part assures Israel that America will insist on transparency and verification.

Obama said that he was directing Secretary of State John Kerry to start talks with the Iranian leadership. Aware of the problems, he spoke of the deep mistrust between the US and Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution: "Iranians have complained of U.S. interference and of (CIA machinations in) overthrowing a democratically elected government of Mossadeq in 1953, while Americans see a country that has taken Americans hostages, killed American troops and threatened Israel". Brave words that Obama is so famous for uttering at the right time for right effect. He even declared that there would be "no regime change". The Iranians would see this more as an acknowledgment of the failure of the policy of sanctions rather than an assurance of good intent.

Obama recognised the difficulties of building bridges across the waters that have been so muddied over the decades. "The suspicion runs too deep," he said. "But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship — one based on mutual interests and mutual respect." There was great hope and goodwill in the messaging.

The long road has some immediate bumps ahead. A 'grand bargain' between Washington and Tehran is deeply feared both by Saudi Arabia and Israel, two of the closest allies of the US. Even Qatar, that is emerging as the hub for rehabilitating all ex-terrorists, from the Taliban to Hamas to Muslim Brotherhood, may suddenly feel the pangs of abandonment. The Republicans, the AIPAC and the Saudi lobbies are difficult to shake off and they may not let much room for manoeuvre for Obama. The hard-line clerics in Iran too would be waiting to condemn Rouhani for a 'sell-out to the Zionists and the imperialists', if his overture is rebuffed.

Obama shaking hands with Rouhani would have set off vibrations that may cause tectonic changes in the region. So it was best done without much manifest symbolism.

(Ravi Joshi is a Visiting Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Anjali Birla

Anjali Birla

Anjali Birla is an Indian Civil Services Officer(Batch 2020) working in the Ministry of Railways and has done her graduation in Political Science from Delhi ...

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