Are Thawed Relations with Iran Obama’s Saving Grace?
After failing to garner support on a military strike on Syria, President Obama hinted at reconciliation with Iran at the UN General Assembly
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
On Tuesday at the UN General Assembly, President Obama and the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, gave speeches that marked the opening of new diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. Let’s take a listen to what President Obama and the Iranian president, Rouhani, had to say.
DESVARIEUX: With us to discuss the significance of this change in U.S.-Iranian relations is Reza Marashi. He is a research director for National Iranian American Council.
Thanks for joining us, Reza.
REZA MARASHI, RESEARCH DIRECTOR, NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL: Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So, Reza, why is this change in diplomatic relations happening now? Is this due to the effects of sanctions and what’s been happening over there economically in Iran? Or is this more about Obama trying to actually score a political win after failing to shore up support in Congress for military intervention in Syria?
MARASHI: I think it’s a byproduct of a few different things. You know, sanctions are certainly sharpening the choices of the Iranian government. I don’t think anybody doubts that. And certainly Obama’s looking for political winds where he can find them.
I would argue that the biggest change we’ve seen so far is the mandate that the Iranian people gave to the new Iranian president when they elected him. He has a track record of trying to pursue peaceful solutions to Iran’s conflicts with members of the international community, and that’s very powerful. So I think Obama recognizes that, and as a result we have this new opening. It’s a very slow diplomatic thaw. And right now I think both sides are taking steps rhetorically, you know, a change in style, a change in tone, and hopefully later on down the line can facilitate change in substance.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. So you essentially see both things happening at once here. Obama needs to score a political win, as well as Rouhani, his past, his resume, essentially, coupled with the economic sanctions that have been placed on Iran, both these two forces are coming together, and now we’re seeing this opportunity for thawing between both sides.
MARASHI: Yeah. And, like I’ve said, [incompr.] sum of all parts. And I think both men know, both Obama and Rouhani know that they have the support of the vast majority of their respective populations to try and solve this U.S.-Iran conflict peacefully that’s been bubbling over 34, 35 years now and has kind of reached a point where–you know, in the old game of chicken where two cars drive towards the end of the cliff, both sides kind of hit the brakes and say, wait a minute, if we go over this cliff, so to speak, it’s going to end up in a military confrontation that both sides [incompr.] to avoid. So I think it’s good that cooler heads have prevailed and both sides are trying something they frankly hasn’t really been tried anytime over the past three decades prior. And that’s positive. But it is going to take some time.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about how this is going to affect U.S.’s primary alliances in the region. We have, of course, Saudi Arabia and their long-standing tension with Iran. We have Israel and their tension with Iran over Hezbollah. And of course Qatar: Iran and Qatar actually share natural gas fields. So what do you see happening between the two–between all these allies based on the U.S. thawing relations with Iran now?
MARASHI: Well, Iran has been a strategic rival to other countries in the Middle East for quite some time. And when you are a rival, the relationship can either be one of cooperation amongst rivals or it can be confrontation amongst rivals. And we’ve seen different phases of this confrontation or cooperation take place over the past 30 years.
I think President Rouhani, if we take his words at face value, will seek to pursue a more cooperative rivalry with other countries in the region, Israel included. And that’s something that we saw not only with Israel but Saudi Arabia and other countries in this part of the world in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Obviously, Israel is a bit more difficult pill for folks in Iran to swallow in terms of repairing the relationship quickly, as it is for Israel as well. But again, moving back from the precipice of conflict I think is very important, and the Iranian president has rhetorically taken a step back. And now we’ll see if he’s willing to back up the words with actions. And we’ll also see if the Israeli prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, is willing to do the same. So far, unfortunately, we’ve not seen anything that would lead us to believe that that’s going to be the case.
DESVARIEUX: Not just Israel, but what about Saudi Arabia? They’ve been really gunning for regime change over there in Iran.
MARASHI: Well, the Saudis are the natural rival to Iran in the region–the two biggest countries in terms of landmass, large populations, massive amounts of energy resources. And, you know, this is something that the Saudis are going to want to–they’re going to want to see it to believe it in terms of Iran taking a different approach to its regional policies. They’re going to want to see Iran take steps. Perhaps Iran goes first to demonstrate goodwill and build trust with the Saudis.
It remains to be seen how that process will play out, but I do think it’s something that they’re going to try. And the men who tried this 10, 15, 20 years ago in Saudi Arabia and Iran are still major players in their respective governments. So it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the first domino to fall in terms of Iran repairing its relations with the world more broadly and the Middle East more specifically.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about domestic politics in Iran. Can you explain how different actors within the Iran, such as the Revolutionary Guard and Ayatollah Khomeini, have influenced the decision to change its relations with the United States?
MARASHI: That’s a great question. You know, I think that at the end of the day, entities like the Revolutionary Guard are not monolithic in terms of their politics. So as a result of that, you have a fair number of folks inside the Revolutionary Guard that support Rouhani’s approach and disagree with the approach that Ahmadinejad had taken. You also have some that disagree with Rouhani’s approach. The supreme leader himself has often tried to portray himself as this magnanimous guy that stays above the day-to-day domestic political fray in Iran. That’s no longer really the case, though, in terms of the practical application.
What’s telling, though, is that the former president Khatami of Iran, the current president Rouhani, have both said that the supreme leader is backing Rouhani’s initiative to try diplomacy and negotiations with the West more generally and Iran more specifically. That bodes very well for the possibility of finding a peaceful solution.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Reza.
MARASHI: Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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