x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Rouhani’s call offers promise on nuclear question

A simple phone call may be the beginning of an historic change in the relationship between Iran and the United States.

There was no “chance meeting” in the corridor between Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, as some pundits had predicted, but a 15-minute phone call between the two leaders on Friday represented a major step forward in the relationship between the United States and Iran.

The first high-level exchange between the nations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 held out promise of a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme and the lifting of crippling economic sanctions against the country.

The call – which was reportedly initiated by Mr Rouhani and ended with him exhorting Mr Obama to “have a nice day” – came at the end of a flurry of diplomacy in New York last week.

After the phone call, Mr Obama said: “While there will be significant obstacles and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution. I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution.”

There are major hurdles to a full normalisation of the relationship. Mr Rouhani’s power is limited; Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say, and public reaction in Iran has so far been mixed. Mr Rouhani was met at Tehran airport by several hundred cheering supporters, and a few dozen protesters throwing eggs and chanting: “Death to America.”

Mr Obama has to deal with a sceptical American public – many of whom still think of Iran in terms of the “axis of evil” defined by former president George W Bush – and an often-hostile Congress.

Any deal that allows the comprehensive inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and a binding agreement on the degree to which it can enrich uranium, would be welcomed globally, and especially in this region.

Lifting the sanctions on Iran is in the interests of many – from the desperately poor ordinary Iranians who have suffered the most to those who are keen to resume economic ties.

Mr Rouhani has certainly made all the right noises, saying Iran does not seek to build a nuclear bomb, believing such a move would be “dangerous for us [and] for our region”. He confidently asserted that “the nuclear file will be resolved in a short period of time”.

But, as Mr Obama has said, Iran must do more than just talk. It must offer up “meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions” before any agreement can be reached.

The door is open. If Mr Rouhani can deliver on this issue, there is reason for cautious optimism about further constructive cooperation in the region.