Why should Hassan (Rouhani) meet with Hussein (Obama)?

If Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani is really interested in fulfilling his campaign promise of alleviating international sanctions, improving the economy, and reducing tensions with the world, one bold step could be meeting with President Barack Obama during the upcoming UN General Assembly session to be held in September in New York.

In order to prove that, unlike his predecessors, the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the reformist Mohammad Khatami, the moderate Rouhani does not fear face-to-face encounters with US officials, perhaps he can stay in the hall and listen to Obama’s speech. There are no sacred revolutionary or ideological values to be upheld by leaving the hall and avoiding any conversation, even short and accidental, with American officials. In fact, Rouhani’s mere presence could indicate that in order to address his country’s issues and concerns, as well as the international community’s, Iran’s new president is not confined by Islamic Revolution political traditions, and that he has the will and the courage to change the status quo.

Rouhani cannot waste a lot of time on general statements and beautiful but empty rhetoric and expect to deliver on his promise of removing sanctions and reducing tensions, too. The ongoing nuclear dispute that has been underway for ten years, the passage of Iran’s nuclear dossier from the IAEA to the UN Security Council, multi-layered sanctions by the US Congress and the president, and repeated threats from Israel against Iran, don’t leave Rouhani much time to waste.

This is why the Iranian president, who has called for “efforts to create trust,” must take the first  step to disrupt the usual Washington discourse about Iran, and prevent members of the Senate and the Congress, who persistently pressure Obama to act more forcefully towards Iran, from escalating the situation further. No action would be more effective in creating such trust than a visit, even if “accidental” and short, between Hassan Rouhani and Barack Hussein Obama. It would create powerful new opportunities for Iran’s new president.

Symbolically, Hassan, the second Imam of Shia Muslims, was an astute negotiator and peacemaker, and Hussein, the third Shia Imam, considered war only as a last resort. Hussein is also the quintessential Shia hero, who when faced with an imminent war forged ahead with his small, dedicated army and became a martyr in the end. Iranian culture is deeply invested in the values the two brothers have promulgated through their righteousness and valor. Hussein remains one of the most popular names in Iran, and in many religious families, it is not unusual to see two brothers named Hassan and Hussein.

After years of working as head of the Strategic Research Center under Iran’s powerful Expediency Council in Tehran, Mr. Rouhani should have realized that the road to solving Iran’s regional and international issues does not pass through dismissing the US and getting cozy with China and Russia, nor attempting to create rifts between the US and Europe. Tehran’s efforts in both areas have failed. The US and Europe continue to stand together on Iran and neither China nor Russia will risk a serious deterioration in relations with the US over Iran’s small market. Perhaps this is the reason Rouhani said during a campaign speech in May that direct talks with US is an easier path for resolving the country’s issues:

“Negotiations with the US are possible; it does seem very difficult, but it is possible. In this vein, I have a belief which you, students, may not accept, and it is that negotiating with the US is easier than with Europe, because Europeans have a problem where in international affairs they see a higher power by the name of US above themselves, but Americans are the village chief, and it’s easier to make a deal with the village chief than with lower people.”http://www.rouhani.ir/event.php?event_id=50

However, during his August 6 press conference with domestic and foreign reporters, when asked about the possibility of a visit with Obama during his upcoming trip to New York, Rouhani did not show the same forthrightness in his response. “What matters to me are [our] national interests and realization of people’s rights, and the other issues are secondary issues. We must see the goodwill in American officials and reciprocal respect and feel that there are mutual concerns between the two countries, and that there aren’t multiple agendas inside the US [government]. We must fix the root first, because other issues are secondary issues.”

Fixing the root requires dialogue. Rouhani is in a completely different position compared to Ahmadinejad, who for four years lived under the heavy shadow of a disputed election that was followed by widespread state violations of human rights. Rouhani has the overwhelming public support of a nation that has explicitly endorsed his policy aims of reducing tensions and working to have sanctions removed. Even if Ahmadinejad had made attempts at this dialogue, it would have been perceived as Iran coming to her knees vis-a-vis the US, at least before the eyes of hardliners in Tehran. With Mr. Rouhani’s popularity, on the other hand, direct talks with the US would display Tehran’s self-confidence, determination and readiness to resolve its international issues.

Despite Mr. Rouhani’s acknowledgement of the need to “talk with the village chief” in order to solve the country’s problems, he seems to have doubts. “This dual path [where the US pursues both negotiations and more stringent sanctions] will not bring them results. This dual path questions the honesty of US officials…I am not saying that there is or there isn’t a hidden division of work between the US Congress and the US government, but what we hold as proof is the actual US policies, because if the US behaves with goodwill and according to mutual respect and from an equal position, without hidden agendas, the road will be paved for cooperation,” he said during his August press conference.

But Mr. Rouhani’s concern about hearing two different voices from the US, leading to what appears as a dual approach to Iran, should not be reason to give up on the option of direct talks; rather, it should be seen as the reason to accelerate such talks. The Iranian president is not responsible for, nor capable of, making Washington univocal about Iran.

The truth is that Washington is not and will never be univocal on any issue, international or domestic.  Indeed, during the past four years, Republicans have not provided any assistance to the Obama administration with its domestic agenda. This will not change with the election of a new president in Iran. There is no Supreme Leader in the US to step in when the government and Congress have a dispute and things are at a stalemate, invite all to dinner, admonish and blame them, and demand that they work together and see to it that starting the next day, no one will act against the government’s agenda. If Iranian politicians are postponing their dialogue with the US until Washington speaks with one voice, they will have a long wait, and I doubt the Iranian President will have this much time during which to resolve the issues between the two countries.

Conversely, if Iran takes the initiative and expresses interest in talking to senior American, the very same House and Senate members who are laying the groundwork for stronger sanctions against Iran right now will be disarmed and put on the defensive.

Even though the very idea of a planned meeting between Hassan Rouhani and Barack Hussein Obama may seem far-fetched at this time, such bold initiatives could change the course of the decades long enmity. From planning a visit between the new Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry, to an invitation from Iranian parliamentarians for US Congress and Senate Representatives to visit Iran, to accelerating the new round of nuclear negotiations, such fresh turns could create a diplomatic storm and present new opportunities for the Iranian president to pursue his confidence-building measures, discuss his issues frankly and directly, and prevent powerful lobby groups from intensifying pressure on Iran.

In the current cold state of Iran-US relations, and in the absence of communication channels between the two countries and the natural lack of understanding that happens in such a state, these groups are able to destroy any and all possibilities of improving relations and solving the issues between Iran and the US.

Mr. Rouhani should be able to explain to Iran’s Supreme Leader and his apostles that Iran should be able to talk directly with the US and discuss the issues without layers of intermediaries. The president must create a domestic consensus that Iran has the political and diplomatic abilities needed for direct talks with the US. He must convince Khamanei that talking with the opposing side—or as Mr. Khamenei likes to call it, “the enemy”—does not mean losing points, but could instead reduce the dangers facing the country, and, more importantly, if he can convince the Leader that more than 30 years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran is at a stage where it has the necessary self-confidence, capability, and non-delusional vision to talk with the US, we can then say that he is a president that is different than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mohammad Khatami, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Alongside efforts to begin talks with high-ranking US officials, if over the coming weeks Hassan Rouhani takes steps to improve civil and political freedoms in Iran, and delivers a portion of his campaign promises to release political prisoners, allow freedom of expression and association, and lift the house arrest of reformist leaders, his position will be further strengthened in any future talks.

A president who sits at the negotiations table while dissident and opposition leaders—who also happen to support his political agenda—remain in prison, enjoys less maneuverability than one who enjoys domestic legitimacy. What better time to guarantee freedom of expression for Iranians than now, so that the topic of negotiations with the US can be put to public debate in the Iranian press?

Mr. Rouhani does not have that much time to take the initiative and create a new political and diplomatic dynamic. Domestic policies in the US will seriously limit Obama’s government, and compromise the president’s ability to respond in kind to any Iranian gesture as the 2014 mid-term elections in the US approach.

Beginning talks does not mean that decades-old problems are going to be solved in a month or a year, but it could provide an opportunity for Iran to begin solving its issues with the outside world. If Mr. Rouhani misses this opportunity, he will pave the way for a further intensification of international pressure on Iran. Inaction on President Rouhani’s part will only intensify the belief in Washington that, like his predecessors, Mr. Rouhani is not capable of creating serious change in Iran’s relations with the US and that there is no other way to solve the existing concerns other than putting more pressure on the Iranian regime.

Considering the critical situation of the Iranian economy, the polarized civil and political society of Iran, and the impatience of millions of Iranian citizens for change, if Rouhani fails to show political courage and the will to deliver his campaign promises, he will become another weak president incapable of making any changes in Iran’s escalating crisis, and another who wasted the last hopes of the Iranian people for real change.

By Iran Wire


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