As Rowhani takes power, U.S. must now move forward to improve U.S.-Iran relations

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In 1995, months before the administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton found a peaceful solution at the Dayton peace talks to end the ethnic cleansing that had plagued Bosnia-Herzegovina for the previous four years, it found itself in the rare position of colluding with Iran to save Bosnian lives. USflagIran Flag Icon

At the time, the United States was unable, under a United Nations arms embargo that prohibited the shipment of arms to any parties in the ongoing Bosnian civil war, to provide Bosnian Muslims with the arms necessary to protect themselves from Serbian aggression.  The U.S. government suddenly found the Islamic Republic a useful ally.  Iran, lacking the same qualms of violating the U.N. embargo as a permanent member of the U.S. Security Council, happily shipped clandestine weapons to Bosnian Muslims, a move that Clinton-era officials tacitly encouraged in public on the pages of The New York Times:

A senior Administration official insisted today that the White House neither approved nor endorsed the Iranians’ actions. But after months in which President Clinton and his aides have been unable to persuade American allies to allow arms to flow legally to the Bosnian Muslims, one adviser to Mr. Clinton called Teheran’s motivations in making the shipments “understandable.”

The new flow of arms and ammunition has not yet put Bosnian Muslim forces on the same plane as their better-armed Bosnian Serb rivals, Administration officials said. But with the shipments of small arms, ammunition and anti-tank weapons amounting to perhaps hundreds of tons, they said it had made the Bosnian Government a more formidable force as a four-month-old cease-fire is about to expire.

Two months after the Times reported the critical role Iran, then in the final years of the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani, was playing to save Bosnian lives, Clinton signed an executive order banning U.S. businesses from trading with the Iranian government and implementing sanctions on oil and other trade with Iran.  It was a missed opportunity to thaw the 16-year diplomatic rupture with the United States.

Fast forward six years to the presidency of liberal reformer Mohammed Khatami shortly after the horrific al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001.  Within weeks, the United States pushed the radical Taliban from power, and it did so on the strength of the Northern Alliance, a group that had not only received material support from Tehran in the years leading up to 2001, but had also received Tehran’s tacit encouragement to work with the United States.  The Shiite government in Iran had much reason to be wary of both the radical Sunni, militant al-Qaeda, with its roots in the Arabian Peninsula to Iran’s west and the destabilizing Taliban to Iran’s east that had sent thousands of refugees into Iran by 2001.  But it was also another fertile opportunity for U.S.-Iranian relations, just months after Khatami secured an easy reelection.  As the Christian Science Monitor reported in October 2001:

Iran, which admitted last week that it has directed covert military and logistical support to the embattled Northern Alliance, also backs a transitional government that would give way to what one Foreign Ministry official has described as “a broad-based government set up under UN auspices.”

Iran’s reward at the time?  Bush included it in his three-country ‘axis of evil’ alongside North Korea and Iraq in January 2002.

Now fast-forward to last weekend.  During his inauguration on Sunday, Iran’s new president Hassan Rowhani urged a largely conciliatory and moderate course , contrasting sharply to the defiant, anti-American, anti-Israeli rhetoric of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  But as Rowhani (pictured above, right, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) gets down to the business of governing Iran, U.S. officials should realize that Iranian leaders feel like they have been burned by the United States before.

It’s not just on Bosnia and on Afghanistan.  Iran abetted the Reagan administration’s clandestine plan to arm the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s (the Iranian half of the ‘Iran Contra’ scandal), despite the fact that the United States was actively supported Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s military offensive against Iran that morphed into the bitter Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.  Even Rowhani himself has reason to feel scorned.  Back in 2003, as Iran’s first nuclear energy negotiator, Rowhani offered to suspend enrichment and provided greater access to officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency.  When his overtures to the United States achieve no tangible gains to Iran, it undermined Rowhani and his reformist president Khatami, all to the benefit of recalcitrant hardliners closer to Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who won the upper hand within Iran’s internal debate with Ahmadinejad’s election in June 2005.

Despite the promise of a cautious opening to Iran during U.S. president Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, the effect of his administration’s Iran policy has been to introduce ever-more-stringent sanctions against the Islamic Republic.  The Obama administration marked Rowhani’s inauguration by challenging the Iranians to take the first step toward better relations:

We note that President Rouhani recognised his election represented a call by the Iranian people for change, and we hope the new Iranian government will heed the will of the voters by making choices that will lead to a better life for the Iranian people. The inauguration of President Rouhani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

But Rowhani, who has already selected a largely technocratic list of ministers for his cabinet, doesn’t need the Obama administration to tell him what his election represented.  Rowhani won a first-round absolute majority despite a six-man field, prevailing over both Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, and Ali Akbar Velayati, a former longtime foreign minister with close ties to Khamenei.  It’s reasonable that the Obama administration hopes Rowhani can revive the talks with the ‘5 + 1’ nations that ended in April over Iran’s nuclear program.  After that, though, if the United States wants Rowhani’s help, it must be willing to show that it can offer substantive incentives.  While the Iranian presidency is not as powerful as the office of the Supreme Leader under the balance of powers within the Islamic Republic’s constitutional framework, neither is it powerless.   But the fastest way to render Rowhani powerless is for the Western powers to leave Rowhani without any real accomplishments.  Khamenei and his allies support Rowhani’s moderation today, but Khamenei might not be so accommodating if Rowhani cannot deliver some relief from crippling sanctions.

Neoconservative voices like U.S. senator Lindsey Graham, even now, continue to agitate for a potential U.S. military intervention to end Iran’s nuclear program, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaped on a Rowhani misquote over the weekend in order to dismiss Rowhani’s moderation.  When the U.S. House of Representatives is willing to pass a bill on the eve of Rowhani’s inauguration calling for even tougher sanctions against Iran by a vote of 400 to 20, it’s easy to see why the Iranian government might already be nervous about U.S. intentions (note: sometimes bipartisanship can be overrated).

As Stephen Kinzer wrote over the weekend for The Guardian, Iran’s wariness of U.S. intentions goes back well beyond 1979, due to the role that the CIA played in toppling former Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and the broad U.S. support for the shah’s repressive, authoritarian regime from the 1950s until 1979, when even Islamists and secular liberals alike united to end the shaw’s rule:

A nuclear deal with Iran will only be possible if the West finds a way to calm Iranian fears that the deal is just another repeat of a cycle they have seen over generations.

The United States ironically initiated Iran’s nuclear program during the 1960s, and Iran had been invested in a French consortium to enrich uranium at the time of the 1979 revolution.  Needless to say, France cut off any possibility of supplying uranium to the government of grand ayatollah Ruhhollah Khomeini, and Iran received compensation for the investment it had made in the 1970s project for enriched uranium only in the 1990s.  It’s easy to understand why Iran is skeptical of entrusting the Iranian nuclear industry’s enrichment to foreign powers — and that’s without noting Britain’s late-empire Persian machinations.

The Obama administration’s challenge is to forge a strategic path with Iran’s new president that undermines the hardliners in both Iran and in the United States.  Whether Iran likes it or not, it has to demonstrate to the world that it’s not pursuing clandestine nuclear weaponry.  But whether the West likes it or not, it must ultimately acknowledge that Iran — a sovereign nation of 75 million people — has a right to its own nuclear energy program on terms that respect the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic, and Obama will have to back up his weekend olive branch with substantive alms that show the United States is serious.

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