Obama, Rouhani Try Telephone Diplomacy, Lawmakers Skeptical

Both leaders will have to persuade their domestic critics that a nuclear deal is necessary to improve relations.

President Barack Obama speaks with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, September 27
President Barack Obama speaks with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, September 27 (White House/Pete Souza)

After their respective speeches to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hassan Rouhani of Iran returned to their own corners without the historic handshake that observers were hoping for. Given the constant speculation in the media of an informal meeting between the two leaders, the news that a handshake would not occur came as a disappointment. Some saw Rouhani’s refusal to meet Obama as a snub. Others labeled it a missed opportunity.

It appears that Obama and Rouhani had something else in mind. Just as an American-Iranian détente threatened to unravel, Obama stepped behind the White House podium and stated, to everyone’s surprise, that he had spoken directly with Iran’s new president on the phone. “Going forward,” Obama said, “President Rouhani and I have directed our teams to continue working expeditiously to pursue an agreement” on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

More so then a public handshake, the phone call between Obama and Rouhani is an historic moment. As Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, later reiterated on CNN, this was the first direct American-Iranian contact between heads of state since the 1979 revolution that deposed the shah.

Following a General Assembly speech that was more conciliatory than the ones usually delivered by his predecessor, the blustering Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a series of interviews with American television networks and comfortable meetings with reporters, Rouhani’s phone call with Obama was the culmination of what could be a shift in his nation’s foreign relations.

On the surface, at least, Rouhani is following up on his campaign rhetoric of breaking Iran’s isolation from the rest of the world by signaling a willingness to be more transparent in its nuclear dealings.

Ultimately, however, words will only go so far. While a meeting between Iran’s new foreign minister and representatives of the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany went well — Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Mohammad Javad Zarif alone for about thirty minutes — striking a bargain over Iran’s uranium enrichment program will likely be a rough journey with numerous bumps in the road.

Rouhani is known to be a shrewd, if pragmatic, negotiator. Even if he seeks to lift the painful sanctions that have curtailed Iran’s economic growth, the Iranian president is a veteran who is not going to be pushed around by Western powers. Nor will he shut down Iran’s entire uranium enrichment effort — a program that has taken over two decades and billions of dollars to build up.

As in previous rounds of negotiations, arriving at a deal that everyone can live with will be contingent on the politics back home as much as geopolitics. While the Obama and Rouhani Administrations have made a diplomatic solution on the nuclear issue the cornerstone of their foreign policies, both will confront influential policymakers who are extremely reluctant to make concessions, if not adamantly opposed to compromise.

Rouhani will have to manage critics in the Revolutionary Guard Corps while trying to get concessions from world powers. This reality greeted him upon his return to Tehran when a small crowd of hardliners upset about his contact with an American president threw eggs and shoes at his convoy.

In the United States, Obama has to persuade members of Congress that allowing Iran to possess a peaceful uranium enrichment program in exchange for full verification and inspections is a compromise that best serves the nation’s goal of an Iran without nuclear weapons.

This will be difficult for Obama, given the polarized political climate in Washington and deadlock in Congress over budget and economic policies. If there is a foreign policy issue in the United States that, for now, Democrats and Republicans agree on, it is punishing the Iranian regime to the maximum extent possible. Many lawmakers are opposed to relaxing sanctions, even in the event that Iran does scale back its enrichment efforts.

To illustrate just how treacherous negotiations will be, ten Republican senators, the chairman of the body’s Foreign Relations Committee, who is a Democrat, as well as a group of bipartisan lawmakers wrote separately to the White House last week urging the president to be cautious in dealing with Iran even if its new president has struck a different tone.

Fixing a relationship that has been defined by animosity and mistrust for 34 years will take more than a few months or even a few years. Iran and the United States have pursued a zero-sum game in their relations. A defeat for one was always treated as a victory for the other. If there is any hope of a breakthrough, Obama and Rouhani must convince a skeptical public that compromising is the best, or only, way to healing old wounds.

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