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Analysis: Iran – US facing rare opportunity for dialogue | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – In 1979, US President Jimmy Carter was keen to make a deal with the mullahs who had just seized power in Tehran. Members of his administration had dubbed Khomeini “The Gandhi of Islam” and “a philosopher king”. Carter himself had sent the ayatollah two hand-written letters assuring him of his sympathy and support “from one believer to another.”

For reasons that have kept historians busy for three decades, Carter’s bid failed. Afraid of being outflanked on his left, the ayatollah adopted an anti-American posture and kept US diplomats in Tehran as hostages until Carter was voted out of the White House.

In those days, one man did more than many to bring the president and the ayatollah together. He was the “rising star” of the US Democratic Party, the then young Senator from Delaware Joseph Biden.

Today, Biden is Vice President of the United States and finds himself in the most Iran-friendly US administration the US has seen since 1979.

President Barack Obama himself has been more than keen on making a deal with Tehran. His “hand of friendship” to Tehran has remained out-stretched for more than five years. However, he and Biden could not have gone the full length in their desire to appease Tehran for two reasons.

First, they faced re-election and feared that charges of appeasing mullahs could undermine their chances of retaining power. That fear no longer exists. Neither Obama nor Biden will be facing any more elections.

Secondly, key members of the first Obama administration were not as keen on making a deal with Iran as the president and the vice president. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a less idealistic view of foreign policy than either Obama or Biden. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defence in the first two years of the Obama administration, had learned not to trust the mullahs during his tenure as Director of the CIA under the first President Bush. Leon Panetta, who served as Secretary of Defence in the last two years of Obama’s first administration, had also experienced disappointment with Tehran during his tenure as part of the Bill Clinton administration.

Now, Senator John Kerry will be replacing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State while Chuck Hagel is slated as the next head of the Pentagon.

Kerry has a long history of lobbying for a deal with Tehran, just as he had worked hard to improve the image of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Washington. During Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004, Iranian businessman Hassan Namazi had headed the Senator’s special fund-raising committee.

Hagel, also a senator, although from the Republican Party, has also been an active advocate of making a deal with Tehran since the late 1990s. In a conversation in Washington in 2005, Hagel criticised the administration of President George W Bush for its failure to “understand the other side’s interests.” Over the years, Hagel has made numerous speeches and published quite a few op-eds to argue in favour of making a deal with Tehran.

If both Kerry and Hagel are confirmed as it seems almost certain, the mullahs would be facing the rare opportunity of dealing with a US administration that is ready to bend backwards to meet as much of their demands as reasonably possible.

The trouble is that the “pacifist” posture of the second Obama administration may increase the mullahs’ greed to the point that no deal would be possible.

The forthcoming talks between Iran and the 5+1 Group, due to start before the end of January, will be a test of both side’s true intentions.

The leadership in Tehran certainly seems desperate for talks to start quickly — but seems less eager for them to finish anytime soon. This is a change: Usually, whenever there’s talk of talks, Tehran has played reluctant debutante.

But now the regime needs the talks, for several reasons.

First, fear of war has prompted a massive flight of capital, with banks in Dubai working overtime to launder Iranian money into the global financial mainstream.

Partly as a result of the same fears, the value of the Iranian rial has dropped almost 80 percent since 2010. This has boosted exports but made imports, including vital parts needed for the industry, more expensive. The result is mass unemployment in key provinces.

The atmosphere of crisis has boosted the morale of the opposition to the regime. For the first time in a decade, the possibility of regime change is a topic of conversation in political circles.

Another reason for fear is the effect of sanctions imposed by the United Nations, and separately by the United States and the European Union. The regime had long succeeded in sheltering its support base from most effects of the sanctions — but now even key constituencies such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are feeling the pain.

The psychological effect is also important. There is a sense of isolation, something Iranians loathe, as people realize that the regime has transformed Iran into a diplomatic pariah.

Talking with the 5+1 could help the regime on all those accounts. It would signal the opposition that the outside world is still prepared to accept the regime, warts and all. And the removal of some sanctions, promised by the Obama administration, could allay fears of economic collapse — and raise hopes that, over time, all sanctions will be scrapped.

The question is what could the Obama-Biden-Kerry-Hagel quartet get out of the planned talks?