It has been a lucky few days for US President Barack Obama. After the last minute reprieve from a potentially humiliating situation vis-à-vis Syria, courtesy Russian President Vladimir Putin, he has now been handed a significant opening by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
The manner in which Rouhani has reached out to his American counterpart is all but unprecedented in the vitiated atmosphere of US-Iran relations.
His categorical assurance that Iran does not intend to develop nuclear weapons was one thing; it could have been, and indeed has been, dismissed as eyewash by hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv. But his open letter of sorts in the Washington Post maintaining Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy but stressing an opening up of Iran’s foreign policy and a concomitant need for constructive engagement lends his diplomatic initiative too much weight to ignore.
Obama must take this opportunity, starting at the UN general assembly this week where there are hopes both leaders may orchestrate an informal meeting.
The reasons for the drastic shift in Tehran’s stance between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency and Rouhani’s are not difficult to discern. The international sanctions spearheaded by the US are hurting the Iranian economy, and badly. Oil exports have plummeted, depriving Tehran of a major source of revenue, and it has been barred from participating in the international banking system.
Inflation is trending above 40 per cent this year to add to 2011-12’s recession. Factor in poor fiscal management by Ahmadinejad and it is a dismal situation all around. The prospect of western military intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have been another factor given that he is Iran’s biggest regional ally.
The major question, of course, is: Does Rouhani have the political clout to deliver on his promises or is supreme leader Ali Khamenei likely to undercut him? The signs are positive here too. Khamenei spoke last week of the need for “heroic leniency”, stressing the need for diplomacy over militarism and, in effect, endorsing Rouhani’s efforts.
The fact that Rouhani is a pragmatist centrist rather than a reformist like former president Mohammad Khatami may work in his favour here. It is likely to mean a greater level of comfort between Khamenei and him, particularly given that he has represented the supreme leader on Iran’s security council.
And it is worth remembering that Iran’s religious leadership is not utterly inflexible when spurred by national interest; witness Iran’s acceptance of a UN-brokered ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 after years of strident war rhetoric.
None of this means that there is any guarantee of a positive outcome to diplomatic engagement, of course. Iran has held out the prospect of progress on the matter of its nuclear programme in the past as a means of buying time.
And there will be substantial hurdles, not least the alarmist rhetoric emanating from Tel Aviv and within Washington itself from bodies such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, already dismissing Rouhani’s efforts as fraudulent.
But Obama must not listen to their drumbeats of war, and he must engage with Rouhani in a manner that gives the latter something to show hardliners in Tehran. To ignore this opening would be unwise in the extreme.