Monday, March 20, 2023
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Occasional Diplomacy

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In a 15 minute phone call last Friday, President Obama and the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, exchanged formalities, marking one of the first conversations between a United States President and his Iranian counterpart in over 30 years. It has been hailed by many, both in Iran and the United States, as a large step toward greater diplomacy between the two countries that may finally solve the nuclear issue. However, there should be no expectation that such a conversation will lead to great shifts in diplomatic relations, even if Obama and Rouhani were to meet in person, because the objectives of the United States, its allies and Iran are almost impossible to reconcile.

Rouhani has certainly taken a much more moderate approach compared to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. In a speech for the UN General Assembly, Rouhani assured the council that Iran’s nuclear development is solely for peaceful purposes and that “peace is within reach.” It is likely that his hope is that warmer relations between the two countries can help ease the destructive nature of the many foreign sanctions placed on Iran, which has left the country in both economic and social turmoil. Although that would be greatly beneficial to Iran and its ailing economy, the compromise necessary to attain the removal of such sanctions would be very difficult.

These sanctions exist because of Iran’s purported efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program. Although Iran has claimed that it has not considered adding nuclear weapons to its arsenal, there is a mutual distrust between the two countries that prevents any actual progress from being made.

In turn for decreased economic sanctions, Iran and Supreme Leader Khamenie are not going to sacrifice the country’s sovereignty and privacy to allow a multinational organization to pore over documents regarding its nuclear enterprises and enforce a nuclear enrichment cap on its on soil. Without complete proof that no nuclear weapons enterprises or intent to create nuclear weapons exists, the United States and its allies are unlikely to lift the heavy hitting sanctions.

Rouhani’s moderate tone, although welcome, is unlikely to change the lack of confidence between the two countries regarding Iran’s nuclear enrichment. There have been many attempts at compromise over the past decade, almost all to no avail. In addition, Rouhani does not hold the cards when it comes to deciding key nuclear issues. That power lies within Supreme Leader Khamenie’s realm. Even if Obama and Rouhani formed a lasting bond, according to the International Crisis Group few of those sanctions can actually be lifted by the United States, making greater interaction between the two countries rather fruitless. Unfortunately, there will be continued deadlock because neither side will risk the consequences if they appease the other.

In addition, Israel has planted itself firmly against closer relations between Iran and the United States. In a speech at the United Nations General Council on Tuesday, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu lambasted the incoming president of Iran. In his speech, he called President Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and pushed for greater sanctions against Iran. By Israel’s calculations, Iran is only months away from producing a nuclear weapon. There is a fear that if sanctions were eased now, the nuclear weapon could be developed even faster than before, posing a great risk to Israel. In his speech, he stated that Israel was willing to fight on its own against Iran with or without the support of the United States. With such harsh rhetoric from one of America’s closest allies, it makes it even more unlikely that talks can make much progress. Obama is not going to jeopardize America’s long-standing friendship with Israel by siding with Iran. With such a palpable threat of military action, Iran will be even less likely to negotiate, compromise and reach a peaceful conclusion.

Ultimately the idea that Presidents Rouhani and Obama can meet and suddenly work out differences that have stagnant for over a decade is merely a dream.

Without the backing of an ally as close as Israel, and a decades long skepticism of either side’s intentions, any form of diplomatic conversation between these two countries will end as quickly and as spontaneously as it began.
It seems hard to imagine that Rouhani will change any of that.


Alan Chan is a first-year political science major. He can be reached