In Tehran, great hopes rest on nuclear diplomacy

Commentary: Many Iranians see their new government as best hope for engaging the West to ease burdens of isolation

An Iranian woman walks past a mural showing a gun painted with an interpretation of the American flag on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
2013 AFP

TEHRAN — Many TV viewers in Tehran were on the edge of their chairs on Tuesday around 9 p.m. local time, watching the live feed from a luncheon in faraway New York. As world leaders filed into the event, hosted by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, cameras focused on the steady stream of international power brokers shaking hands with President Barack Obama. But the question, for Iranians, was: Where was their president, Hassan Rouhani?

As it turned out, the Iranians were a no-show, scotching hopes that the dining diplomats would witness a historic handshake between Rouhani and Obama that had been the focus of a frenzy of media anticipation in the preceding days.

"It's an exciting time for Iranians. They're fed up with hostility, 'death to America,'" said Tehran University professor Sadegh Zibakalam, summing up the mood ahead of Rouhani's New York visit. "They're all watching with anxiety and lots of hope for a breakthrough — not a major breakthrough, even. As long as Rouhani and Obama shake hands, it's enough."

The handshake didn't happen. The White House said later that the Iranian had indicated any such meeting was “too complicated,” an explanation the U.S. side accepted, citing an understanding of the domestic political situation in Tehran.

The reason Iranians had attached so much importance to even a small gesture of friendship is the burden of crushing sanctions on an already failing economy, and the recurring threat of military action against their country's nuclear facilities. Many had looked to New York for a sign of hope that their country's isolation might be coming to an end.

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Rouhani's New York trip and efforts to cultivate an image of openness to dialogue saw Iran's rial strengthen against the dollar, and casual conversation in Tehran reflected a sense of mounting anticipation of a diplomatic breakthrough.

One young Iranian researcher, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "I just want Rouhani to show the world we are peaceful." Iranians randomly canvassed by Al Jazeera since the election of Rouhani in June expect an improvement in relations with the U.S.

Even if they didn't get the handshake, they got a message from the U.S. leadership that most deemed far more conciliatory than what had been heard in recent years. Obama, in his own U.N. speech, recognized Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy and bluntly stated that the U.S. was not seeking regime change in Tehran.

The Iranian press was mostly positive in its assessment. The reformist-leaning paper Etemad headlined its story "Historic proposal," while Shargh wrote, "The presidents of Iran and the U.S. did not meet — maybe some other time." More hard-line papers were more cynical, with Kayhan, affiliated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, running the headline "Obama once again distorts against Iran."

But even some of the hard-line papers drew attention to the fact that Obama had, in his speech, recognized Khamenei's religious decree against building nuclear weapons, and spoke of sending him and Rouhani letters and of the president's popular mandate to negotiate. "I don't believe history can be overcome overnight," Obama said, "but if we can resolve the nuclear issue, it's a major step down a long road to a different relationship."

And even if the presidents did not get to shake hands, Thursday's meeting of the foreign ministers of the P5+1 group — including Secretary of State John Kerry — with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif marked the highest official diplomatic contact between U.S. and Iranian officials since 2007.

Speaking in Tehran, former U.N. diplomat Davoud Hermidas-Bavand told Al Jazeera that the Iranian government has been keeping a consistent tone since it was elected, and the swift progress at the U.N. is all part of that.

"(Rouhani) declared he was going in order to solve the existing debacles and problems and to get out of the deadlock situation for Iran," Hermidas-Bavand explained. "So, first and primarily, it was the will and wish of the Iranian people that the existing problems are solved; secondly, the international situation, particularly the regional crises, dictate a new approach needed to be taken; and third, the Supreme Leader's statements (regarding flexibility) mean Mr. Rouhani has enough authority, and to an extent free authority, to handle the problems."

Rouhani's speech to the U.N. hours after Obama's responded to the U.S. president's remarks, with each appearing to address more hawkish domestic constituencies. Thus, while Obama spoke of a readiness to use military force to protect U.S. interests in the Middle East, Rouhani countered that "securing peace and democracy and ensuring the legitimate rights of all countries in the world, including in the Middle East, cannot — and will not — be realized through militarism."

Despite firmly asserting Iran's national interests, he also reiterated his message that Iran is willing to meet the U.S. in the middle.

"Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions," Rouhani said, adding that it is in his country's interest to remove "any and all reasonable concerns about Iran's peaceful nuclear program."

That, he noted, cannot be done without "acceptance of and respect for the implementation of the right to enrichment inside Iran and enjoyment of other related nuclear rights." 

The differences between Iran and its Western interlocutors, however, are not based simply on misunderstandings or a negative atmosphere. Tough bargaining lies ahead in order to bridge the gulf between the demands each side is making of the other.

"It is unrealistic to believe that the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program can be ensured through impeding the program via illegitimate pressures," Rouhani told the U.N. His foreign minister made the same comments a week earlier in Iran, suggesting that while Tehran is willing to negotiate a solution to the standoff, it is not about to capitulate. The question from Thursday's meeting of foreign ministers, then, is whether and how they will be able to find and expand the common ground on which any compromise will rest.

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