After more than three decades of bitter enmity, Iran and the United States have set the stage for high-level contacts that have the potential to transform the Middle East. But the process, centred on resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme, is likely to be slow and difficult.
Iran’s moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani, and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, delivered relatively conciliatory if cautious speeches at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. Each mirrored the other’s expressed desire for a diplomatic solution while still airing mutual grievances.
Mr Rouhani proclaimed “peace is within reach” while Mr Obama explicitly denied that Washington’s aim was “regime change” in Tehran. He also accepted Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Mr Obama, however, failed to secure a widely anticipated handshake with Mr Rouhani, who baulked at the prospect of a photo opportunity that would have enraged hardliners at home.
Instead, but no less significantly, the highest-level talks in years between the two adversaries will begin on Thursday in New York when Iran’s US-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, meets John Kerry, the US secretary of state.
Their discussions are under a format that brings together Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with Germany, the so-called P5+1. Until now, neither side has fielded its top diplomats in the nuclear negotiations.
Iran was the first to place its foreign minister in charge of the talks, with the us swiftly following suit. Each side is investing far “more in the diplomatic process”, said Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group. That “means more political will and a greater cost of failure, and this is exactly what we need to overcome the political obstacles”.
On Thursday they will debate how to move beyond the stalemate in their talks, with a full-fledged round of negotiations expected next month in Geneva.
Although the “inflated expectations” of an historic handshake were punctured, “the near-term prospects for diplomacy between Washington and Tehran are genuinely encouraging”, Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said.
On the table is a standing offer from the P5+1 for Iran to suspend its most sensitive uranium enrichment in return for modest relief from international sanctions. Tehran rejected that bid during the most recent round of talks in Kazakhstan in April.
Mr Rouhani made clear in his UN speech that Iran wants a far better deal on sanctions – which he described as “violent, pure and simple” – along with recognition of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. He said that if Washington withstood the influence of “warmongers”, then the US and Iran “can arrive at a framework to manage our differences”.
He continued: “Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme.” On the other hand, he added that Iran’s mastery of atomic technology had reached an “industrial scale” and could not be reversed.
Any deal, then, will come down to how much nuclear activity Iran is permitted under stricter international invigilation.
Direct talks between Tehran and Washington could also pay other dividends. Many of the worst problems in the Middle East – from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon – can only improve with a more pliant Iran.
“Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region,” Mr Rouhani insisted on Tuesday.
Yet a rapprochement between Iran and the US faces hostility from many quarters, including Israel, hardliners in Tehran and the US Congress.
The last holds the key to easing sanctions if Iran makes concessions on its nuclear programme. Failure to deliver would undermine Mr Rouhani at home and scupper any detente.
Israel – the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear power – and America’s allies in the Arabian Gulf are also watching nervously, worried that Mr Obama will trade their security for an easing of tensions with Iran.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Israeli premier, has urged Washington not to trust the new Iranian president, branding him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and dismissing his UN address as “cynical” and “full of hypocrisy”.
Without naming Israel directly, Mr Rouhani criticised its treatment of Palestinians. “Palestine is under occupation,” he told world leaders. “The basic rights of Palestinians are tragically violated.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with CNN, he condemned the Holocaust as a “reprehensible” crime committed by the Nazis against Jews. His hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had caused international outrage by repeatedly denying the Holocaust.
Many ordinary Iranians on social media sites are cheering on their president in New York, hoping what they call his “smile diplomacy” will ease their country’s isolation and lift crippling sanctions.
Mr Obama doubted “this difficult history can be overcome overnight”, saying “the suspicion runs too deep”.
But, using terminology that will resonate in Tehran, he added: “I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship – one based on mutual interests and mutual respect”.