President Obama’s speech at this year’s UN General Assembly, as well as Iran’s newly-elected, moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s attendance, captured the world’s attention due to increasing hopes for a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. The media’s far-reaching coverage of Obama’s speech, followed by a flurry of analyses of his statements reflects the gravity of the situation.
In his speech, Obama highlighted the fatwa (a religious decree) issued by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, prohibiting the development of nuclear weapons, as one of the key elements that have raised hopes that the two sides can reach a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear deadlock. In statements delivered after his historical telephone conversation with the Iranian president, the first of its kind since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Obama again emphasized the fatwa as a positive development that is grounds for optimism for a peaceful solution. The significance of this statement can be viewed from different angles.
First, it displays to Tehran that America views the fatwa and its perceived weight in the Iranian theocratic political system as a strict prohibition on the development of nuclear weapons. Additionally, Obama’s citation of the fatwa signifies the recognition and likely importance of it as part of a possible nuclear deal in the future.
But a more prominent angle not to be overlooked by Tehran is the fact that Obama, before the eyes of the world, has acknowledged Iran’s political system and the decisive role that velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) plays in that system. Complementary to this statement was Obama’s affirmation that the US government is not “seeking regime change” in Iran. It is the first time in twenty years that the US government publicly affirms the acceptance of Iran’s political order.
In March 2000, Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, delivered a historic speech for the Iranian New Year. In that speech, she expressed her regret over US involvement in the 1953 coup that toppled Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. She also condemned America’s support of Saddam Hussein during Iraq’s war against Iran, calling those policies “short-sighted.” Albright called on Iran to join the US “in writing a new chapter in the two states’ shared history.”
Even though Albright praised the reformist president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, she also declared that, “despite the trend towards democracy, control over the military, judiciary, courts and police remains in unelected hands.” This statement was enough to eclipse her rapprochement effort. Following Albright’s speech, Ayatollah Khamenei fiercely rejected her offer of reconciliation, and said “America’s animosity [toward Iran] will not be resolved through discussions.”
President Bush expressed the same view in 2005. Following the election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Bush questioned the relevance and credibility of the elections, stating that power in Iran would continue to be held by “an unelected few.”
One and a half years after the fatwa was issued, President Obama’s emphasis on it at this juncture might be viewed as a signal to Tehran that the US has abandoned its previous position. Iran may view this as a monumental step on Washington’s part, which could be a starting point for a chain of reconciliatory moves from both sides.
Another reason behind Obama’s emphasis on the fatwa could be to satisfy and pacify hardliners in Iran’s power centers who remained vehemently opposed to the talks between Iran and the US.
In any event, the road to an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program will be rocky. Three factors deserve attention in this respect. First, it is not yet clear whether the US will accept the continuance of uranium enrichment in Iran—which is Iran’s “red line”—even if the 20 percent enrichment at the Fordow facility is halted and the level of enrichment is capped at 5 percent. Iran has made it clear that it will not agree to the complete suspension of its uranium enrichment program.
In his UN speech, President Obama stated that Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program is respected, but, at the same time, he insisted that the Iranian government should “meet its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and UN Security Council resolutions.” Pointing to the UN resolutions is a code that the US officials use to remind Iran that it should suspend its enrichment program until all concerns about potential military dimensions of its nuclear program are addressed. All four sanction resolutions include this provision.
The second factor is the complexity of the sanction laws. The laws behind the American sanctions on Iran are a network of intertwined pieces of legislation. They are structured so that they cover not only the nuclear issue, but also address issues of human rights and terrorism. In other words, Iran could technically halt its entire nuclear program tomorrow, and the sanctions would remain in effect. Those laws grant authority to America’s president to temporarily suspend the sanctions, but to waive them permanently the president must certify before Congress that it is vital to the national security interests of the Unites States to do so. Of course, certifying this to the satisfaction of Congress would be no easy task.
Since Iran’s primary incentive for showing flexibility would be the removal of sanctions, it remains to be seen how far Obama can go in fulfilling the Iranians’ expectations in exchange for considerable nuclear concessions.
The third factor complicating matters on the road to agreement is the role of spoilers in Iran, the US, and Israel. Peace between Iran and the US would place the interests of some pressure groups in serious jeopardy. Therefore, as a final deal between Iran and the US approaches, attempts to undermine the process are possible in all three countries. Some initial signs of this were already visible when Rouhani returned from the UN.
On September 29, ultra-conservatives organized fierce attacks on Rouhani in their newspapers and internet outlets following his telephone conversation with President Obama. Eggs and a shoe were thrown at him upon his return from the UN.
In reality, the hardline current, represented in the Iranian media by the daily newspaper Kayhan, will lose its relevance in Iranian politics if peace is reached between Iran and the US. Therefore, it is logical to assume that hardliners will fight for their political survival by any means at their disposal, including violence. In the coming days, we should expect the intensification of this struggle of hardliners against a peace process between Iran and the US—and not only in Iran, but also in the United States and Israel.