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False Start?

 

By resorting to personal attacks on Rouhani and misreading the election verdict in Tehran, policy-makers at the Capitol Hill are seriously undermining the nuclear negotiations before it has even started, Says Saurabh Kumar Shahi
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: July 28, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Hassan Rouhani | Iranina presidential elections | Ahmadinejad | Khamenei |
 

Exactly a month ago, when Hassan Rouhani was elected by the Iranian masses for their next president, it was widely speculated that it will lead to a certain degree of normalization in the relationship between Iran and the West and that the latter will now be more considerate in understanding the former's view point over its nuclear program.

A month to the election, nothing of the sort has happened. If anything, the US in particular has taken steps to bury the talks even before it has started.

In his campaign message, Rouhani stressed on two particular key issues. The first was moderation of internal and external policies. It was under this policy that Rouhani stressed to bring back the current state of US-Iran relationship from the state of “hostility” to state of “tension” that was prevalent before President Ahmadinejad's term.

Second, it was also stressed that since Supreme Leader Khamenei indicated in some of his speeches that if the US is sincere in its offer to talk directly, Iran might think about returning the favour; the groundwork for such bilateral talks needed to be prepared. Rhetoric, symbolic of Ahmadinejad's era, was toned down significantly.
However, the response from the American side has been bewildering, but in line with the predictions by some of the not-so-optimistic analysts.

It started with the typical right-wing below-the-belt attacks on the president elect himself. It was erroneously accused by a section of Capitol Hill that Rouhani, who has served on key posts, was complicit in the 1994 bombing of an Argentina Jewish Center as well as leading the crackdown on Tehran University students in 1999.

“Opponents of engaging Iran have already deemed the election worse than irrelevant, accusing Rouhani of being a wolf in moderate sheep’s clothing. According to this view, Iran’s new president is simply a more pleasant face on an evil regime — a tyranny that must be confronted and not negotiated with,” says Colin H. Kahl, an expert based with Edmund A. Walsh School for Foreign Service.

If the visceral personal attacks were not enough, the maliciousness was taken to the level of policy formation. It was also evident that there is a difference in opinion between the White House and the Congress. The Congress is not willing to concede its ground and that is going to hamper any negotiation with Iran.

For example, merely days after the elections, almost all the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee signed a letter to President Obama asking him to increase the pressure on Iran. The translated version of the letter was distributed all over Iran through email and newspaper. This has left Iranians disenchanted. And this is undermining Rouhani’s standing.

Such actions have also given credence to the long-held view in Tehran and elsewhere that US does not want serious nuclear negotiation. The only idea of continued pressure is to engineer some sort of regime change in Tehran. The theory has also started finding traction in the mainstream US analysis. Former US officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, who negotiated with Iran during early days of Bush's war on Afghanistan, recently wrote: “Why the United States must come to terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran is rarely is part of Iran policy debates in the United States. Washington’s unwillingness [to recognize the rights of Iran for enrichment] is grounded in unattractive, but fundamental, aspects of American strategic culture: difficulty coming to terms with independent power centers (whether globally or in vital regions like the Middle East); hostility to non-liberal states, unless they subordinate their foreign policies to U.S. preferences (as Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak); and an unreflective but deeply rooted sense that U.S.-backed norms, rules, and transnational decision-making processes are meant to constrain others, not America itself.”

This verdict, from whichever angle you see it, is a damning.

Rouhani is anyway very cautious. Considering it was him who suspended the enrichment unilaterally during Khatami’s time and it was he who was given promise by the Europeans that the initiative will be returned with favourable outcome, and later Europeans balked under American pressure and gave him nothing, his position is sticky. He has burnt his fingers and he does not want to repeat the same mistake again. It will undermine his position permanently. Iranians, whether they support the Islamic system, or oppose it, are unanimous on the issue of Nuclear program. They don’t want their sovereignty to be compromised at any cost. Therefore, Rouhani is very cautious this time and wants surety and assurances before giving any major concession.

“To surrender Iran’s nuclear program will be political suicide for any Iranian politician, particularly since the country has endured such severe economic and political ramifications. Reinforcing the importance of the nuclear program, only recently Iranian lawmakers signed a petition urging the nuclear negotiating team to defend national interests,” maintains Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a nuclear negotiation expert who was spokesman for Iran’s team in nuclear negotiations with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

On the other hand, Capitol Hill appears to have completely misread the message that the voters gave in Tehran. They erroneously believe that voters selected a Centrist president because of the US' pressure and that continued pressure will topple the Islamic system. Nothing can be farther from the truth. By coming out in huge numbers and vote, Iranians have reasserted their confidence in the system despite discrepancies. Pushed to corner, they will further stick to the regime, not oppose it. The sooner US sheds this disillusion, the better it is.
With Europe, it is a different ball-game up till now. Lately, European powers, at least some of them, have shown greater flexibility than ever before and are willing to address their interest even if they don't merge with those of the United States. Rouhani is sure to have noticed that. It might prove to be a game-changer in the long run. As of now, it is wait and watch in Tehran.           

saurabh.shahi@thesundayindian.com

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017