Strange things are happening in Iran these days. Its president says he seeks not confrontation but conciliation. Women feel able to push the boundaries of “acceptable” clothing with a little less fear that the country’s vicious fashion police will punish them for it. The people have hope.
And so they should. Hassan Rouhani’s election to the Iranian presidency in June 2013 created a belief in Iran that an end to international isolation was possible. In the space of just a few weeks, its government publicly overturned over thirty years of official policy, sat down to talk with the US, and made a deal. The Iranians I speak to can barely believe it.
For decades, the ultraconservative newspaper Kayhan rejected any talk of relations with Washington. Now it attacks anyone who gets in the way of them. After the failure to reach a deal at the November 12 talks was blamed on the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, the paper was outraged. The “disgraceful behavior of the French foreign minister in the Geneva talks,” it thundered, only pointed to his acting “on behalf of the Zionist regime”—i.e., Israel.
This is significant. Kayhan’s editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, personally dictates the paper’s editorial line. He has links to Iran’s intelligence services and is a close confident of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. They don’t come any more hardline than him. It is the conservative establishment elite (who take their cue from Khamenei) as well as those more moderately inclined that now seek some form of rapprochement. When Mohammad Khatami—a far more liberal politician than Rouhani—was elected as Iran’s president in 1997, he found his attempts at change opposed by the hardliners at every stage. He left office a defeated man. Rouhani, it appears, has the support Khatami never had.
Both the Iranians and the US needed a deal of some kind—even an interim one.Rouhani had to show hardliners and Khamenei that his new policy of engagement was worthwhile. President Obama had to prove that talking to Iran could work, and to appease America’s own hardliners in Congress, who remain eager to pass more sanctions on Iran.
More sanctions are what the Iranians want to avoid at all costs. Make no mistake—they came to the negotiating table because they had no choice. Sanctions targeting Iran’s oil and banking industries are scalding the economy. The people are suffering. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a friend in Tehran. “No one really cares about the nuclear program anymore. We’re sick of it,” he told me. “We just want Rouhani to get the sanctions lifted so we can live a normal life again.”
This appears to be the regime’s goal, even if it means talking to their American nemesis. And it is important to understand the ideological shift this represents for a regime that bases its legitimacy on resisting the “Great Satan.” It is also hugely difficult for the deeply anti-Western Khamenei to stomach.
In 1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini likened making peace with Iraq to drinking a cup of poison. Khamenei is now drinking his own toxic brew: Iran has bowed to pressure, and fear has trumped pride. In the last six weeks, Iran and the US have talked more than they had in the previous 34 years. His recent comment about the need for “heroic flexibility” in negotiations merely highlights the rhetorical acrobatics he is now performing to justify a political retreat without painting it as the defeat it really is.
In late 2009, US Undersecretary of State William J. Burns met with Iran’s then-chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, for bilateral talks. I read reports of the meeting from US diplomats who sat just yards from Jalili, but after the talks ended Iran denied they had taken place. The Iranian media remained silent. After the last round of talks in Geneva, even Kayhan splashed its front page with a picture of US Secretary of State John Kerry sitting opposite Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The State Department’s erudite Persian-language spokesman, Alan Eyre, was recently photographed—looking like a dapper rock star—surrounded by a gaggle of female Iranian journalists who would previously have been forbidden to even approach a US official.
The regime has engaged in some face-saving. The anniversary celebration of the 1979–1980 hostage crisis held in early November was accompanied by much chanting of “Death to America,” designed to keep the faith of the faithful. But do these sentiments have traction in Iran’s foreign policy? The answer is no. Iranians now make deals with the Americans—and their media broadcasts it.
Talking to the Iranians was a big a step for the US, too—but one that was overdue. A few years back I spoke to former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Nick Burns, who, with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, reached out to the Iranians in 2005. As a career diplomat, he considered the relationship with Iran to be the most unusual one Washington had with any country in the world. The US, he pointed out, had maintained embassies throughout the Cold War in both Moscow and Beijing, but for three decades didn’t even speak to Iran, one of the most powerful states in the world’s tinderbox: the Middle East. It was vital, he said, to exhaust diplomacy before considering any other options.
He was right. If the talks had failed, all the other options looked bad. The US public is rightly wary of war. No one wants another Iraq. Something much more valuable than an interim nuclear deal is now possible: eventual détente between Iran and the US. It won’t be easy. But after over thirty years, the possibility is at least, finally, here.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.