Four years after President Barack Obama famously extended his hand of friendship to Iran, Tehran finally seems willing to unclench its fist. The most decisive geopolitical handshake of this decade may take place today at the United Nations. Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani and Obama may have this encounter at the luncheon of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday or in the UN building’s corridors.
This new opening has taken the world by surprise. Washington’s dual track policy over the past three years—a combination of a little bit of diplomacy and a whole lot of strangulating sanctions—has produced a hardening of the Iranian position. Tehran’s nuclear activities have continued unabated, while its regional policies, particularly its support for the Assad regime in Syria, have intensified. Both sides seemed to be preparing for a long fight, where perseverance would determine the outcome.
Almost no one in the US government expected the Iranian elections to change this—and certainly not by voting in Iranian pragmatists, who had been pushed to the margins of Iranian politics over the past eight years. But the Iranian electorate have a track record of stunning the world—and they did it again this summer. Against all odds, they turned out in large numbers and dared the Iranian conservatives to cheat again—as they did in 2009.
Washington, however, espouses a different narrative. The change in the Iranian position is not so much due to the change of guards, but the inevitable pain of sanctions finally changing Tehran’s nuclear calculus. Some even claim the election results were produced by the sanctions.
On one level, this narrative looks convincing. The pain of sanctions is indisputable, creating an impression that it inspired Tehran’s change in tone.
But there is a more complex reality—one less soothing to Western political narratives.
The Iranian signals are not that surprising. Rouhani and the new esteemed foreign minister, Javad Zarif, played crucial roles in past Iranian efforts to engineer an opening to Washington—almost a decade before the strangulating sanctions. Zarif led the collaboration with the United States in Afghanistan in 2001, where the two countries closely cooperated to oust the Taliban and establish a new constitutional government in that country. The Iranians were hoping Washington would appreciate their strategic help and improve relations. Instead, President George W Bush listed Iran in the “Axis of Evil.” The Iranian plan for rapprochement fell apart.
Two years later, this same team of Iranian officials offered the Bush administration