U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to change a great number of things in his first election campaign 2008, and among them was bringing peace to the Middle East. Long neglected during his first Presidential term, it seems that now, at last, Israeli-Palestinian relations may be rising to a higher level of political salience. Last week, Vice-President Joe Biden met with officials from both sides in cautious attempts to reinstate peace talks, stating that the time was right to do so. He is correct in his judgment, yet the American government needs to undertake much more in the region. Serious efforts towards a peaceful, conflict-free Middle East also need to address the questions around Iran’s nuclear programme. With the recent election of Hassan Rouhani as the new president and his upcoming inauguration on August 3rd, chances for a renewal of bilateral U.S.-Iran negotiations have not been better for almost a decade, and the U.S. Administration needs to act swiftly.
Rouhani’s surprise and decisive election marks a likely distinctive switch for Iran’s approach towards diplomacy with the U.S. He was Iran’s top nuclear negotiator in a golden era of agreement; a deal-maker who agreed to observe the IAEA Additional Protocol on inspections and a temporary freeze on enrichment in 2003. However, many Iranians thought the Europeans failed to deliver on his good will the first time. They will not be patient the second. He also called for greater and more reasonable engagement with the international community over the nuclear issue during and after his election campaign. From the looks of it, he is making a bid to manage Iran’s nuclear file.
Iran’s current Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has been looking for common ground in the bilateral nuclear talks. This is a further sign that Tehran will be ready to resume nuclear talks with the U.S. as soon as Rouhani assembles his negotiation team, most likely in September.
Prevailing opinion in the U.S., however, appears scepticism. Rouhani is seen to be either disingenuous or powerless towards Ali Khamenei. As Supreme Leader, Khamenei has the final say on all nuclear decisions. His main interest will be to divide the international community, weaken support for sanctions and build up negotiating leverage through the nuclear programme. Even the most optimistic outlooks on Rouhani’s election in U.S. government circles, however, are overshadowed by deep suspicions about Iran’s overall trustworthiness. This attitude needs to change if there is to be any actual potential for fruitful nuclear talks.
Both sides need to develop a track record of trustworthiness, but that will not happen if this stalemate continues. Someone needs to make the first step, and the other needs to be acutely aware of the potential signalling and re-enforce it quickly. President-elect Rouhani has been making positive first gestures, but his room for manoeuvre is also limited by history. The United States needs to make the first step, but the Administration is hampered by a Congress fixated by piling on sanctions. Two possible actions for the U.S. government present themselves nonetheless: to issue a public, credible, long-term statement that it does not seek a regime change in Iran; and to lighten a small number of symbolic sanctions to show good will.
These steps would signal to Rouhani that the United States is willing to give him and his Administration the benefit of the doubt on nuclear talks. The second measure in particular would create an atmosphere of good will, since Rouhani has often called on the U.S. to roll back its oppressive actions.
This would encourage Rouhani to nominate officials to his nuclear negotiating team who sincerely intend to make actual progress. This could be a very important step away from the appointment of the showmen more concerned with playing to the gallery than completing negotiations.