Hardliners Let Obama-Rouhani Diplomacy Play Out, For Now

Conservatives in Tehran and Washington seem willing to give diplomacy another try but will expect results soon.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 25
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 25 (Presidency of Iran)

The recent rhetorical goodwill between Iran and the United States seems to have dampened the animosity and mistrust that existed between the two nations for 34 years. But unless the diplomatic opening achieves clear results, hardliners may yet close the door on talks.

A relatively conciliatory speech from Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, before the United Nations set the stage for a preliminary discussion between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the sidelines of the annual General Assembly meeting last week. Rouhani’s first trip to New York as Iran’s leader ended in a dramatic fashion — with a brief but historic phone call with President Barack Obama on his way to the airport.

However, as commentators and officials keep repeating, words are one thing; actions and concessions are something else entirely.

Whether the two countries can leverage the positive momentum that was generated in the last couple of weeks will soon be put to the test. Will negotiators be able to arrive at a fair and verifiable nuclear agreement that is tolerated by both parties or will the smiles beamed at the United Nations once again produce nothing more than a missed opportunity?

While the answer to this question hangs in the balance, one thing is certain: just as previous attempts at détente soured when hardliners in Tehran and Washington DC pushed back, Presidents Obama and Rouhani will have to confront their domestic critics who are opposed to any compromise. Hammering out a deal that resolves the Iranian nuclear crisis depends as much on the sales pitches back home as to the concessions that both countries are willing to make in negotiations.

For the time being, the cautious optimism that has been generated by the Obama and Rouhani Administrations provides both teams with the political breathing space needed to explore the diplomatic option seriously.

At least 75 percent of Americans who were recently surveyed by CNN support negotiating with the Iranians. Those feelings extend to a party that has traditionally given Obama headaches: 68 percent of those who identify as Republicans could support a diplomatic initiative. For a president who wants to exhaust all diplomatic options before contemplating military strikes to dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capacity but has suffered terrible approval ratings from conservatives, those figures are a boon.

President Rouhani, in a similar fashion, has picked up domestic support. Nearly eight in ten lawmakers signed a statement endorsing his foreign policy which is aimed at lifting the economic sanctions that have strangled his country’s most profitable industries. Most conservative press in Iran has also spoked favorably of Rouhani’s attempt at rapprochement or remained silent, a sign that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guards are waiting to see whether diplomacy can bear any fruit.

History suggests that at some point, an impatient faction in Washington or an influential part of the security establishment in Tehran will try to undercut negotiations, either for opportunistic reasons or for national-security concerns. It was only fifteen years ago when President Mohammad Khatami, a genuine reformer, was reined in by hardliners when he explored an opening to the West. Indeed, whenever one side seems ready to negotiate, the other spurns the offer or demands that certain nonnegotiable preconditions are met before any talks can take place.

If the slight warming of ties between Iran and the West has a chance of permanently improving relations, both sides might have to give up more ground than they would like. If, on the other hand, talks fail to produce concrete benefits that can be sold to the people back home, the diplomatic history of the past decade suggest that it will only be a matter of time before conservative politicians in Tehran and Washington use the lack of progress as a justification to suspend the negotiations.