Strangers in the night: What can we really expect from a US-Iran thaw?

The historic adversaries have nothing to lose, and everything to gain from new diplomatic efforts.

For both the US and Iran, rapprochement is a win-win [AFP]
For both the US and Iran, rapprochement is a win-win [AFP]

More than three decades, and a whole lot of bitter history, after the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, high ranking Iranian and American officials are openly meeting and exchanging more than glances.

The 1979 Iranian revolution, the very raison d’être of the Islamic Republic, was launched with fierce anti-American slogans woven into its ideological foregrounding. The hostage crisis of 1979-1980 was the defining moment of the Iranian revolution whereby the militant Islamists out-manoeuvred all their domestic political rivals, and by appearing to fight a foreign enemy, silenced and eliminated them and established and consolidated an Islamic republic.

The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 pitted the two Muslim nations against each other with the Reagan administration aiding and abetting Saddam Hussein to curtail any revolutionary appeal of Iran to its Arab neighbours, while the Iran-Contra Affair revealed that the US was arming Iran too. Ever since the launch and success of the revolution, the chanting of “Death to America” has been as definitive to Muslim Friday prayers in Iran, as the invocation of Allah-u Akbar.

Muslim revolutionaries leading the Islamic Republic, of course, did not sit still inside its borders. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, they began to actively spread the sphere of their militant influence into the immediate vicinity of Israel – the chief US military base in the region. The line of resistance – though now much weakened in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions – that eventually emerged among Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas has been a thorn in Israel’s side for decades. The catastrophic aftermath of the US-led invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq has created even more fertile grounds for the extended Iranian influences.

What has brought the Iranians and Americans together today is not just the fabricated question of “the nuclear issue” and the crippling economic sanctions that the US, the EU and the UN have imposed on Iran. The far more strategically significant issue is the unfolding Arab revolutions that have destabilised the region to the detriment of both the US and Iran. The two historic enemies have a common interest in micromanaging a very volatile region – and Iran and the US can offer each other help not available in the Saudi and Israeli (US-made) arsenals.

What has brought the US and Iran together is their shared interests in a vastly changing region. President Barack Obama is winding down and thinking of his proverbial place in history, while the Islamic Republic thinks itself eternal. There is fierce opposition to any rapprochement with the US in Iran as there is in the US. While Israel and Saudi Arabia lead the cause of anti-Iran in the US and around the world, their counterparts in Iran, the vested interests of the ruling regime for over three decades invested in anti-Americanism, do the same in Iran. But the force of history pushes forward.

The fact is that there is a clear air of hope and optimism about Iran and Iranians these days – they now sport a smiling president and even a handsome foreign minister whose wide grin and silvery goatee and fancy footwork on his Facebook page, has put a positive twist to Iranian politics.

What now?

Iran has put forward its most diplomatic and conciliatory face, and Obama is in no mood for another war on his watch. The region is in radical turmoil. Syria is bleeding, Egypt is going wayward, the Saudis see their immediate and long-term interests in the region radically modified. They have no clue on whom to place their bets, as Egypt’s deposed president Mohamed Morsi now faces trial in the country in which he was democratically elected. Yemen and Bahrain and Tunisia are unstable. From Morocco to Jordan monarchies wonder and wobble. Israel is the grand loser of this game, and does all in its power to grab more Palestinian lands and create more chaos and confusion, and delay the democratic fate of a region that spells out trouble for the apartheid state.

The Iran and US are poised to strike a deal (if not a “Grand Bargain”), and strike a deal they will. Sanctions will be eventually eased, Iran will happily reduce enrichment and increase transparency. It will lose nothing. With the current condition of nuclear knowledge and infrastructure, and within the NPT regulations and even additional protocols, Iran’s nuclear program can be weaponisable within a year, and there is very little (nothing in fact) that either Israel or the Saudis or the US can do to alter that historic fact. In addition, Iran can and will offer Obama substantial help in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria and where ever else he is in trouble.

Years ago, at the commencement of the Green Movement in Iran, I suggested that the ruling elite in Tehran cornered a lucrative market for themselves so that if the US attacks them they will win, and if they sit down to negotiate with them they will win too. Their weakest spot is their domestic front – which they seem to be addressing – but so far the operative word is “seem”.

In these cautious steps towards détente between Iran and the US, we are witness to the decreasing power of the US to rule the world at whim, and the inability of the Islamic Republic to deny the democratic rights of an entire nation. Neither can the US rule the world at whim, nor can the regime in the Islamic Republic deny a vastly cultivated people their democratic demands.

Steps to success

The ruling regime’s success or failure is entirely contingent on the democratic measures it yields to its own people. There is no gimmick here. President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif can only negotiate from the position of strength that their nation affords them: All its political prisoners freed, its journalism liberated, its freedom of assembly guaranteed, fair and free elections institutionalised, obscene oligarchies dismantled, independent labour unions allowed, women’s rights recognised and student assemblies unfettered.

The fact is that there is a clear air of hope and optimism about Iran and Iranians these days – they now sport a smiling president and even a handsome foreign minister whose wide grin and silvery goatee and fancy footwork on his Facebook page, has put a positive twist to Iranian politics. The warmongers among the ruling regime and the expat opposition alike fear for their future. These are not small feats. The supporters of Rouhani and Zarif, in their millions, are militant in their kindness and gentility towards their elected officials. Any word of caution and emotive balance sounds positively anti-climactic to them.

This optimism is contagious and Rouhani’s administration is deliberately targeting a younger generation of Iranians who are quick to forget and forgive. This transforms the critical discourse from one of aggressive hostility to critical intimacy. The result drives both the Zionist warmongers and the fanatical ideologues inside Iran berserk. It is a changing atmosphere, and thus ever more necessary becomes the solid core of a caring intellect that is neither entirely dismissive of the air of optimism, nor is entirely beholden by it.

The Obama administration has a lot to gain from this thawing season with Iran and very little to lose, and so does the ruling regime in Iran – both sides of this seasoned and cautious optimism indices of a deeply volatile and perilous world in which the two historic nemesis are exchanging glances across the chess – or is it backgammon – board.

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the author of Iran a People Interrupted (2007).

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