Analysis: Is US-Iran détente for real?

After decades of bad blood, a US-Iran nuclear deal is pragmatic — and now possible

President Barack Obama speaks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

More positive diplomatic developments between the United States and its long-time bete noir Iran have come to fruition in recent weeks than in the past three decades.

The bulk of peace overtures have been initiated by Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, in the lead-up to and following his appearance at the United Nations General Assembly last month.

Even during his campaign for president earlier this year, Rouhani – a man with strong ties to the country's hardliners and the iron-fisted security apparatus – spoke of loosening censorship laws in Iran, elevating the place of women in the workforce and ending his country's isolation by solving its nuclear standoff with the international community.

The former nuclear negotiator who had the support of many reformists and moderates in Iran took office on Aug. 3. According to reformist media voices in Iran, Rouhani almost immediately eased, if only slightly, crackdowns on the media. He freed dozens of political prisoners, among them lawyer Nasrin Soutoudeh, and then later Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, an Iranian-Canadian imprisoned in Iran for roughly five years.

The gestures of goodwill did not go unnoticed by President Barack Obama's administration. While a much-rumored meeting did not take place at the U.N. – the last meeting between Iranian and American leaders took place about 35 years ago – Obama personally called Rouhani who promptly tweeted about it.

News of that historic phone call was heard through the Iranian community, affectionately termed "When Hussein called Hassan" – referring to Obama’s middle name and Rouhani’s first.

But what does it all mean? And why now, after decades of acrimony made worse by suspicions that Iran's nuclear program is not intended for civilian purposes but for weapons development, and the rounds of crushing sanctions levied on the country in order to break its nuclear activities?

Because, analysts say, for the first time in years the presidents of both nations have clear political goals in common: They each need a foreign policy "win" in the worst way.

Closing the nuclear file

For nearly 20 years, Iran's nuclear program has been a sticking point with the West, with only the most minimal of headway being made at certain points. During former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two terms, the already-tense relationship between the U.S. and Iran reached new lows, with harsher-than-ever sanctions and increasing talk of war.

This, say regime watchers, is why Rouhani must act fast to close the nuclear file, hence placing a three-to-six-month timeline on reaching a resolution.

Rouhani must act on foreign-policy matters quickly before opposing factions within his government organize and prevent a resolution to the standoff, denying him a political victory, said Payam Mohseni, an expert on Iran and visiting assistant professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

"Succeeding is of great importance to him domestically because...while he's not a reformist, he comes from a different group within the Iranian elite, from the group that has really run Iran in the past eight years. He represents a different set of power, with different interest groups, different social backing, and the elite who support his position," Mohseni told Al Jazeera.

"Succeeding in achieving a nuclear deal with the international community is really necessary for his own political success, and his own political survival at home and, more importantly, for a greater opening in the Iranian political sphere...It can help shape the trajectory of the future of the Islamic Republic itself.”

Scoring a nuclear deal with the West, said Mohseni, will help Rouhani "strengthen his bargaining position domestically, to allow for greater inclusion and greater incorporation of the reformists" within the government. This has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with pragmatism – greater inclusion can mean more legitimacy and fewer power struggles with opposing factions, he said.

Even the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has thrown his support behind Rouhani. It is a calculated move that puts the U.S. in the hot seat, for any failure on Obama's part to negotiate with Rouhani on the nuclear issue would feed into the inherent distrust and paranoia fostered towards the U.S. by Iranian hardliners.

Obama's uphill battle

That Obama needs a victory in the Middle East now is evident to those keeping track of his administration's sluggish response to crises in the region.

The president was lambasted for his response to the deadly attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, a year ago and seen as unsure, if not late to the game, in both the recent crises in Egypt and the Syrian civil war.

"There is very little hope that the United States or anyone else can do much to stabilize Iraq, Libya, Syria or Egypt. Stabilizing Iran, and bringing it back into the family of nations, is much more possible. That would be a 'win' for both sides," said Stephen Kinzer, author of several books on U.S.-Middle East relations.

Still Kinzer, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, pointed out that despite potential good intentions, there are major obstacles on the road to diplomacy.

"Forces that have kept the U.S. and Iran apart are still very active, both in Washington and Tehran. It is still unclear whether they will be able to block reconciliation," said Kinzer.

Within Congress, there are those such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who have always taken a hard line towards Iran. Additionally, U.S. ties with Israel, which continues to see Iran as an existential threat. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently referred to Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly.

Even though Obama again reiterated on Monday that all options, including military action against Iran, remain on the table, Kinzer is optimistic.

"It is wonderful to see that now there are powerful voices on both sides suggesting that the two countries are not fated to be enemies forever," he said.

"Both sides in this long conflict have been prisoners of emotion, and emotion is always the enemy of wise statesmanship. When a clear understanding of national interest becomes strong enough to displace emotion, progress will be possible."

Human rights a starting point

While it seems unlikely that freeing political prisoners will be the key to nuclear negotiations, it does indicate that Rouhani is following through with his campaign promises of releasing some dissidents.

This, said Bitta Mostofi, a prominent Iranian human-rights activist, is a gesture of not only good will but an indication of political acumen.

Like Obama, Mostofi said Rouhani is "walking a tightrope," trying to please both his reformist and hardline supporters.

Obama abandoned pursuing a diplomatic discourse with Iran "when he pushed for sanctions that bring medical shortages and hardships to ordinary Iranians,” said the New York-based lawyer Mostofi. “He's left himself so little wiggle room."

For Rouhani, the sanctions are a human-rights issue. Inflation, economic isolation and shortages of food and medical supplies are keenly felt by a population accustomed to living under not only U.S. sanctions dating back to the 1979 Islamic revolution, but living with rations during the nearly decade-long war with neighboring Iraq.

While at a recent meeting at the White House for Iranian-American community leaders, Mostofi was dismayed to hear that six years of Obama-administration sanctions were to somehow be remedied within six months.

"It was awful to listen to," she said of the rhetoric.

For Iranians such as Mostofi, the speeches at the U.N. or grandstanding to domestic audiences will always be secondary to the fundamental issues: Access to basic needs, services and freedoms.

"For most Americans, it's not possible to even understand what the sanctions are doing to Iranians...or how to even lift the mess of the sanctions," said Mostofi.

But failing to find a way to lift the debilitating sanctions paves "a path to war," Mostofi warned.

Al Jazeera

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