Author: Manna Selassie
A 15-minute phone call between President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and President Barack Obama is already being noted as one of the most salient moments in Iran-United States relations. President Rouhani shines as a golden opportunity for thawing the ice between the West and the Middle East. Although there are several reasons to remain jaded, Obama would be foolish to let this opportunity pass.
After 30 years of poor relations that have included United States-backed coups, American hostages, broken nuclear agreements and heavy economic sanctions, the United States and Iran are finally beginning peace talks. The character and track record of both Rouhani and Obama suggest smooth sailing. Rouhani’s background is perfect in that he is a longtime Western diplomat, nuclear negotiator and Muslim cleric who won his campaign on the platform of reviving Iran’s domestic and international position.
However, the Iranian government’s jaded outlook on American diplomacy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressive distrust and Congress’s long-held misconceptions and reactionary disposition toward Iran suggest a long and difficult road to a fair deal. Still, hardliners on both sides have to admit that a deal which will improve relations even slightly is better than allowing further resentment and potential violence. Therefore, it is imperative that they reach an agreement, and now is the time.
One of the main reasons for historically contentious relations with Iran has been its nuclear activity. Almost any time relations went sour with the U.S. or Europe, Iran began to amp its nuclear energy production. Specifically, after a fallout with Europe in 2005, Iran’s uranium enrichment reached 20 percent. Since then, harsh sanctions were imposed by several nations and the United Nations. Iran reacted by relocating its nuclear facilities to a remote city that was less accessible to monitoring agencies in 2011. Peace talks are essential so that more clarity can be brought to Iran’s nuclear situation.
Further promise is granted in Iran’s several redeeming political statements and gradual lessening of human rights abuses. Iran has been viewed as an extremist nation by the United States as famously stated by former President Bush, at the “axis of evil” alongside North Korea. Yet, Iran has released over 80 political prisoners over the last couple of months, according to ABC News.
Throughout the years, the Iranian government has given Israel more than a few reasons for Netanyahu’s outspoken condemnations of Iran. The former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in 2005 that one day Israel would be “wiped off the map” and that the Holocaust was a “myth.” But President Rouhani actually wished all Jews a happy Rosh Hashannah this year and recognized the happenings of the Holocaust.
Clearly, President Rouhani’s uniquely moderate attitude and actions present an opportunity to significantly change relations between the United States and Iran, and maybe even Israel and Iran. In a critique of Ahmadinejad, Rouhani stated, “my government will be one of prudence and hope and my message is about saving the economy, reviving ethics and interaction with the world.”
Rouhani’s focus on bringing Iran out of the dark ages of economic sanctions and political isolation is what won him the election and drew this silver lining in United States-Iran relations. To demonstrate his dedication to “reconstruct[ing] Iran’s regional and global standing” in a speech given before meetings at the United Nations on Sept. 24, Rouhani met with newspaper executives, think tank officials, former senior U.S. officials and Iranian-Americans. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif followed Rouhani’s lead by holding a meeting that day. As a popular and trusted leader among both the Iranian public and government hardliners, Rouhani can be noted as our best chance at peace with Iran.
Rouhani’s efforts should be met with open arms, but they may face some resistance. While Obama is famous for prioritizing diplomacy above military action, American politicians and the highly influential Netanyahu only provide resistance to thawing the ice. In a speech at the U.N., Netanyahu said, “The only difference between them [Rouhani and Ahmadinejad] is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Rouhani is a wolf in sheeps clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”
However, as someone with an infamous track record of human rights abuses against Palestinians and Muslims, Netanyahu is not the greatest judge of a trustworthy Muslim. Still, Netanyahu heavily influences the actions of many political leaders that have access to various political leaders in the U.S., including New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez.
At first glance, the current situation between the United States and Iran seems like a standoff. It is highly doubtful that the U.S. will simply draw back all sanctions or even consider promising not to attack Iran’s allies such as Syria and Palestine. Furthermore, it is highly doubtful that Iran will agree to have its uranium enrichment extensively monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Both parties know that relations must be improved. Iran needs its sanctions reduced and the United States must get Iran to stop enriching uranium. Iran has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, while the U.S. and other nations have the right to a non-proliferation treaty. Both countries’ leaders have the will to change things in spite of their reluctant peers. After decades of reluctance and rejection of cooperation, Rouhani is the first Iranian leader to make serious efforts at negotiation, and he may be the last if the world does not take this golden opportunity.
Manna Selassie is a senior Diplomacy and World Affairs major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @WklyMSelassie.
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