Optimism about the possibility of improved U.S.-Iran relations, fueled by the election of the moderate Hasan Rouhani and a series of positive signals from both countries' governments, is running up against the hard realities of what it would take to get a nuclear deal done and provoking resistance from powerful constituencies on both sides. Despite a recent charm offensive by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Iran has yet to offer any concrete concessions on uranium enrichment. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is equally ambivalent about providing sanctions relief to Iran, in part because of deep skepticism from Israel, which has sought to throw cold water on any possible deal.
In an early sign that the spark may be fading, a heavily hyped handshake between Obama and Rouhani did not materialize on Tuesday, when the Iranian delegation failed to show up for a luncheon hosted by the U.N. secretary-general. An informal meeting between the two presidents, something the White House last week hinted it was open to, would have been the first encounter between a U.S. and Iranian president since Iran's 1979 revolution.
Hours before the luncheon -- which reportedly featured tuna tartare with avocado and salted caramel chocolate mousse -- Obama told the U.N. General Assembly that the United States and Iran "should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful."
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," the president said, adding that he would dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to work with allies to lay the groundwork for a deal.
Late yesterday afternoon, Rouhani responded to Obama's olive branch with a U.N. speech that mixed sharp criticism of American policies in the region, including economic sanctions on Iran and the use of armed drones, with a pledge "to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks" over Iran's nuclear program.
The Iranian leader said that he had "listened carefully" to Obama's statement and believes that the two leaders can "arrive at a framework to manage our differences" if the Obama administration "will refrain from following the shortsighted interest of warmongering pressure groups."
"In recent years, a dominant voice has been repeatedly heard: 'The military option is on the table,'" Rouhani said. "Let me say loud and clear that peace is within reach."
Rouhani reinforced conciliatory statements by Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's fatwa against nuclear weapons, by pledging that "nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine." But Iran offered few concessions, saying that the big powers' acceptance of "the right to enrichment inside Iran and enjoyment of other related nuclear rights provides the only path towards achieving" an agreement.
The tone of Rouhani's speech was tougher than that of his earlier efforts at outreach, suggesting that American-sponsored "violence and extreme actions such as the use of drones against innocent people in the name of combating terrorism should also be condemned." He also took aim at U.S.-backed sanctions, saying that "these sanctions are violent, pure and simple, whether called smart or otherwise, unilateral or multilateral." He likewise rebuked America and its allies' military role in the region, denouncing "efforts to deprive regional players from their natural domain of action, containment policies, regime change from outside, and the efforts towards redrawing of political borders and frontiers."
Following Rouhani's speech, Israeli's minister for intelligence, international relations, and strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, fired back that the Iranian president "came here today in order to cheat the world, and unfortunately many people are willing to be cheated." He emphasized that Iran has failed to comply with previous U.N. Security Council resolutions, noting that since Rouhani's election "not even one centrifuge was stopped."
Many in the U.S. Congress are similarly unconvinced by the recent Iranian overtures. In a recent letter to Obama, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned that Iran might be using negotiations to buy time as it moves closer to nuclear capacity. In the past, they wrote, the Islamic Republic has used "negotiations as a subterfuge for progress on its clandestine nuclear program."
"Iran is not a friend whose word can be taken as a promise," they wrote. "The test of Iranian seriousness must be verifiable action by Iran to terminate its nuclear weapons program."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sounded an similar note of caution in their own letter to the president: "We respectfully urge that any diplomatic outreach to Iran reemphasize that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and that any relief from crippling economic sanctions on Iran will only be provided if Iran takes meaningful and verifiable actions to halt its nuclear activities," they wrote.
Rouhani's decision to skip the secretary-general's luncheon further underscores just how much distance remains between the United States and Iran. "The Iranians have an internal dynamic that they have to manage, and the relationship with the United States is clearly quite different than the relationship that Iran has with other Western nations," an unnamed senior Obama administration official said yesterday. "It was clear that it was too complicated for them to [coordinate an informal encounter] at this time."
The complications could stem, in part, from differences between Rouhani and Khamenei, who retains final authority over foreign-policy decisions. "I suspect if the decision were solely Rouhani's, he would have liked to be the first president in the history of the Islamic Republic to shake an American's president's hand," Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Foreign Policy in an email. "Shaking hands with Obama would have won Rouhani huge points with the Iranian public, but it would have caused Iran's hardliners to have a conniption."
The supreme leader's reluctance to take up the Obama administration on a symbolic handshake may be as much about optics as it is about policy. "For Khamenei, the Islamic Republic's identity has long been premised on resistance against American hegemony," wrote Sadjadpour. "A nuclear détente is one thing, but how do you explain making nice with America after decades of denouncing it?"
In his speech, Rouhani did put forward one concrete, if somewhat bizarre, proposal of his own. In what was no doubt intended as a jab at Western "coalitions of the willing," the Iranian president put forth a plan for a U.N. project: "the World Against Violence and Extremism," or WAVE. "Let us all join this 'WAVE,'" he said. "I invite all states, international organizations, and civil institutions to undertake a new effort to guide the world in this direction."
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