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Iran and the US: the Politics of Détente

Commentary, 7 October 2013
Middle East and North Africa
The Iranian President’s recent charm offensive in New York could be regarded as the start of a diplomatic revolution. Received well in the US and in Iran itself, it will disturb regional neighbours long accustomed to being estranged from Iran.

The Iranian President’s recent charm offensive in New York could be regarded as the start of a diplomatic revolution. Received well in the US and in Iran itself, it will disturb regional neighbours long accustomed to being estranged from Iran.


If the florid media accounts are anything to go by, this last minute phone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani more than amply made up for the disappointment of the absent handshake.  That Obama had briefed allies of the impending phone-call belied any notion of spontaneity, but the call, made while Rouhani was apparently on route to the airport, (it remains a matter of debate who initiated it), supplied the necessary final dramatic flourish to a week in which the much anticipated US-Iranian courtship drew enthusiasm and anxiety in almost equal measure.

Accepting the fact that Ahmadinejad had set an extremely low bar, the collective performance of the Iranian delegation was nonetheless exceptional, even if it was helped by a healthy dose of generous interpretation by their interlocutors.[1] But where Rouhani might be circumspect and obtuse – his main UN speech was in large parts a master-class in convoluted ambiguity ending with a somewhat bizarre call for people to join his WAVE (World Against Violence and Extremism) – Zarif proved to have no such qualms, and finally in an interview for ABC news, categorically condemned the ‘Holocaust’ as a crime, although his attendant defence of the Supreme Leader as having been in turn misinterpreted on the subject of the ‘myth of the Holocaust’, has rightly drawn derision.

The Iranian charm offensive received a positive response not only from the media but from US officials who were pleasantly surprised by the new mood emanating from Tehran. Obama began courteously drawing attention in his own UN speech to Cold War interventions (the overthrow of Mosaddeq) and even acknowledged the Supreme Leader’s ‘nuclear fatwa’,  a move that reportedly went down well with hard-liners in Iran, while at the same time stressing the need for trust and verification. It is worth noting that there was scant reciprocity with respect to mutual grievances and much of the Iranian discourse essentially focused on the unjustified victimisation of Iran which it seemed could be put down entirely to a misunderstanding of the ‘real’ Iran. There was some tacit acknowledgement that this misunderstanding had not been helped by the previous incumbent of the post of Iranian President, but that was about as far as it went.

Reception in Iran

Far more interesting has been the response in Iran itself which has been generally, if not overwhelmingly positive, with support from Parliament, the Friday prayer leaders (widely regarded as representative of the Leader) and the Iranian press. There has even been some discussion, prompted by Rafsanjani, that the chant ‘death to America’ has really outlived its sell by date,  while the most interesting ideological transformation is that of the Supreme leader himself, who has not only rediscovered diplomacy (of the heroic variety), obviously been widely misunderstood (see above), but has also discovered some merit in Western civilisation by tweeting that Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable was the best novel ever written.

Indeed given the transformation in tone, it has been remarkable just how tepid the criticism has been among hard-liners in Iran, reflecting the reality that perhaps there has been some change of strategy in the Supreme Leader’s office and the demand for diplomatic space is being adhered to.

The usual suspects were surprisingly muted though there has been more recently murmurings of discontent from both the Revolutionary Guards and the hard-line press over the ‘phone call’ which was regarded as undignified and a step too far (a criticism most recently endorsed by Khamenei although he remained supportive of the diplomatic initiative). 

On his arrival back, in Iran Rouhani was greeted by a small group of protestors who threw shoes and barracked the President for his apparent cow-towing the United States. This was however a small group and was far outnumbered by supporters, though it would be fair to say that neither group of protestors was especially large and numbered in the low hundreds.

Indeed among Iranians, for all the elation of a new beginning among the general population – and some relief for the economy (the driving force behind this charm offensive), there is anxiety among hard-liners about just where this will lead, while Reformists remain anxious that beyond the immediate goal of sanctions relief it will not lead to much else at all. Rouhani’s repeated assertion that his election had effectively transformed the political climate of the country has not been taken well by those who remember the mishaps of the Khatami years when complacency arguably set it. On all sides, including the West there is some anxiety that heightened expectations will now be confronted by the reality of serious concessions and that Ahmadinejad’s legacy will not be overturned by pleasantries alone.

Domestic politics aside, Iran’s new government will have to deal with a regional framework that is less sympathetic than at any time since the revolution. The prospect of a diplomatic revolution resulting in a US-Iran détente will disturb many a vested interest in the region with a number of countries having done exceptionally well from the prolonged estrangement. This runs much deeper than the usual suspect to include countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia who are likely to lose political and economic influence.

And what of the usual suspect? With characteristic bombast, which now appeared more out of place than ever, Prime Minister Netanyahu arrived in the United States to warn of the new ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. Indeed as extensive questioning on Iran’s position on the Holocaust indicated, a key issue on the road to normalisation will be Iran’s relationship with the State of Israel. Here, intriguingly, Rouhani afforded a chink of light which no one has seized upon; not least it might be added by Rouhani himself. Among his many speeches at the UN, Rouhani insisted that Israel join the NPT, in a move that was clearly calculated to turn the tables on the Israelis, but one which implicitly recognised a state by the name of ‘Israel’. This is not a new idea and has been circulating among Iranian diplomats for some time. When one was asked whether such a demand implied recognition, he smiled politely and said we could draw what conclusions we wanted. Now that would be a diplomatic revolution.

For background reading on US-Iran relations, read: Confronting Iran: The Failure of US foreign policy and the Roots of Mistrust' by Ali Ansari.



Ali Ansari
Senior Associate Fellow

Ali Ansari is professor of Iranian History and director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews; Senior... read more

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