Iran offers new hope, as Obama extends a hand
Sep 19 2013
President Barack Obama revealed in a television interview on Sunday that he had been in touch with the Iranian leader through an exchange of letters. The Iranian foreign office spokesperson confirmed that President Hassan Rouhani had received a letter of congratulations from the American President and had responded to it. In another interview the same week, President Obama said that President Rouhani appeared to want to open a dialogue with the US and he was willing to test it. This is a diplomatic opening between Washington and Tehran.
There have been other signals in the recent weeks with two recent visitors to Tehran. The visit of Sultan Qaboos of Oman was significant as Oman has acted as an intermediary between the US and Iran and had facilitated the release of American hikers arrested as spies in Iran two years ago. Another visitor was the United Nations undersecretary for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who was earlier assistant secretary for near east affairs in the Obama administration.
Shortly after he was elected, President Obama had written to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But that move did not lead anywhere as Iran held presidential elections which became mired in controversy. Former President Ahmedinejad had also written a 12-page rambling letter to the US President, which did not get a response. The US and Iran have not had formal contact with each other for over three decades since the two countries cut off diplomatic ties in 1980 after radical Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostages. The hostage crisis had lasted 444 days.
So will Washington reach out to the Iranian leader while he is in New York for the UN General Assembly session later this month? State department spokespersons were quick to deny any scheduled meeting between President Obama and his Iranian counterpart in New York. Incidentally, the Iranian President is scheduled to address the UN the same day as President Obama. Whether an “accidental” meeting in the corridors of the UN building takes place or not, there are sufficient indications that both sides are ready to establish direct contact without taking recourse to mediators. President Rouhani is expected to meet British foreign secretary William Hague in New York, according to his English language tweet. The meeting is at Hague’s request and it is well known that Britain coordinates its diplomatic initiatives with the US.
The Syrian conflict has wrought some changes in the regional balance. The Gulf kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which had backed regime change in Syria together with Turkey and Egypt, are dismayed at the American decision to focus on eliminating chemical weapons. Qatar that had played an active role in supporting the Syrian rebels, has taken a low profile after the Taliban fiasco, when the Taliban set up an office in Qatar that irked the Afghan government. Other developments have also affected the regional balance. The removal of Egyptian President Morsi from office hurt the Muslim Brotherhood in the country, as have the popular protests in Turkey. Washington’s overtures to Iran will also have an impact in the region.
Iran, which had got isolated over its nuclear programme and the western sanctions, will regain its importance in the region if it begins direct talks with Washington. Statements by Iranian leaders, including supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei in the past couple of weeks have raised expectations from President Rouhani’s speech at the UN when he is expected to set forth Iran’s proposals for mending ties with the west.
A series of gestures have signalled the changes in Tehran, the most significant one was transferring nuclear negotiations from hardline negotiators to the foreign ministry. Iranian authorities released 11 political prisoners just days before President Rouhani’s departure for New York. Iran wants the economic sanctions that have debilitated its economy be lifted. The sanctions may have run their course and this would be the time for diplomacy to work on both sides.
(The writer is a foreign affairs commentator)