As is all too often the case, the Middle East is currently experiencing a streak of widespread violence and political extremism. In a region where moderate voices are often drowned out by the rhetoric of weapon-toting radicals, one bright spot may be emerging from an unlikely source, Tehran. President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in June and assumed office in August, appears to be a sensible and open-minded politician. Compared to his predecessor, the ever-controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani seems to be making headlines for all the right reasons these days. As promised while on the campaign trail, he recently ordered the release of eleven political prisoners, including well-known human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.. Thatsame day, he conducted an interview with NBC in which he assured the world media that Iran has no intention of developing nuclear weapons. Furthermore, he said that he received a “positive and constructive” letter from American President Barack Obama.
While these developments are not indicative of a fundamental change in U.S.-Iranian relations, they a refreshing change of mood from the not-so-distant past, and do mark a newly positive direction. Compared to the days when Ahmadinejad was making incomprehensibly offensive statements and war hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv were calling for a preemptive strike on Tehran, today’s dialogue should be embraced with open arms by all players. On Tuesday, both Rouhani and Obama addressed the United Nations in New York City. Through such forums, these two men have a real opportunity to mendthe wounds of a historically painful relationship.
One year after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the ascendance of the deeply anti-Western Ayatollah Khomeini, America cut off diplomatic relations with the newly formed republic. Since then, occasional glimmers of hope have been overwhelmed by hostility and unwillingness to even sit down for a polite conversation. The United States has punished Iran for their nuclear ambitions with crippling sanctions, and more recently, Tehran and Washington have diametrically opposed each other when it comes to the bloodshed in Syria. Iranian support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus is a huge obstacle towards progress even today, but Rouhani still deserves a chance to work towards a fresh start.
Even though Rouhani is taking a promising track, one must consider the dynamics of the Iranian power structure. The Supreme Leader is the most powerful member of the government and essentially has veto power over the president when it comes to all major decisions. Grand Ayatollah SayyidAli Khamenei, who has held the position since Khomeini’s death 1989, is surely looking upon Rouhani’s message of outreach with careful scrutiny. It is unclear how much Rouhani can actually impact his country’s foreign policy (or domestic policy, for that matter). However, in the NBC interview, he did stress that he has complete authority to negotiate with the Western powers on a nuclear deal. To the extent he is able, he should receive encouragement from the outside world.
Both the Americans and Iranians should capitalize on the symbolic victories of recent weeks, and work together to carry this momentum forward into more substantial cooperation. If Obama and Rouhani continue with their informal written exchanges, perhaps the culture of this relationship can outgrow its tainted past. Rouhani’s term is still in its infancy, and certain right-wing religious forces in Iran’s political sphere will presumably attack Rouhani’s attempts at a détente. Yet, if given the freedom to interact openly with the United States, he may usher in a new era of civility in American-Iranian relations.
Bayly Winder is a senior political science major from Princeton, NJ. He is the Middle East columnist for the Newsletter.