The accord on Syria’s chemical weapons reached by Washington and Moscow appears to have warmed the tepid relations between the two powers, leading many to be hopeful of an Iranian-American rapprochement that could pave the way for a resolution on Syria.
But sources close to Iran and its Lebanese allies say that while the historic phone call between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and American President Barack Obama is a start, not much has changed on the ground to indicate that a serious breakthrough is imminent.
Rather, these sources said the gestures must be understood as formalities that are merely the first step in arranging a meeting – which may never come, given the many long-standing and contentious issues between the two countries, Iran’s nuclear program being first among them.
In this context, a source close to the leadership of Hezbollah downplayed the importance of the apparent thaw between Tehran and Washington on the one hand and Riyadh and Tehran on the other. According to the source, the Iranian president wants a serious, fruitful meeting, not merely one of protocol, pointing out that Rouhani must also look after his interests at home, where the hawks and conservatives are waiting for him to fail. Therefore, he cannot afford to meet with Obama without scoring any political gains for Tehran.
For the time being, Rouhani appears to have won the first round of diplomacy with Obama by getting the ball rolling, with both sides agreeing to follow up by preparing an agenda of thorny issues to discuss. The outstanding issues include economic sanctions on Iran, Iran’s nuclear program, and Tehran’s role in any regional settlement regarding Syria. The source hinted at another possible high-level meeting, however, between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif in the framework of consultations between the P5+1 and Iran.
According to a source in the so-called “resistance axis,” Iran knows it needs a productive working relationship with the United States, but that does not necessary mean throwing themselves into Washington’s arms, as the two countries remain diametrically opposed on a number of key issues.
The source close to Hezbollah’s leadership said Iranian officials were cautiously optimistic regarding the positive indications coming from the Obama administration, but at the same time they devise policy based on proven mutual trust and respect, not empty promises. Trust cannot be built as long as the U.S. continues to back the hacking of Iran’s computer systems and the assassination of its scientists through its support for Israel, the source added.
The source emphasized that the United States must understand that Rouhani works within the Iranian political system, which is overseen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is Khamenei who recently decreed increased openness toward the West, and it is only on this basis that a meeting between Rouhani and Obama is possible. America must therefore translate its words into actions, the source said.
On the Lebanese side, the source denied rumors of a Hezbollah withdrawal from Syria coinciding with the thawing of U.S.-Iranian relations, ruling out the possibility of Iran handing over all its cards at once. Iranian negotiation, he said, was “like weaving a Persian carpet: It requires patience and wisdom.” Opening a dialogue with the U.S. does not mean Iran is planning on withdrawing support for Syrian President Bashar Assad or abandoning armed resistance to Israel, he said.
If the U.S. truly wants to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, the source said, it will need to meet several Iranian demands, including pushing to lift international sanctions which are hurting Iran domestically, and sharing the “regional pie” with the “other side” by granting more influence to Iran and Russia.