New York was recently the setting of significant developments on the U.S.-Iran relations front, against the backdrop of the United Nations General Assembly. The scene then shifted to Iran, and specifically the angry and nasty reaction that the country’s president received when he arrived home from the annual U.N. meetings.
The media coverage highlighted the fact that Hassan Rouhani was pelted by eggs and shoes, tossed by people angry over recent signs that ties between Washington and Tehran might be improving. However, the media also noted supporters of the Iranian president gathered at Tehran airport to register their support for the new president and his constructive interaction with the country’s most significant rival of the recent past.
The incident demonstrates that the jury is still out over Rouhani, his team and the policies they intend to carry out. And while the reaction by hard-liners to Rouhani is attention-grabbing, people should recall what Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in September when he addressed the Revolutionary Guard’s involvement in politics. Khamenei said the Guard, the military-security institution that enjoys a high-profile role, doesn’t have to get involved in politics, but should have an understanding of political realities.
The comments appeared to give political cover for Rouhani and his team as they attempted to secure a breakthrough in relations with Washington, which is directly related to Iran’s nuclear program and the tough sanctions that have caused so much distress for the country’s economy and people.
All-important political roads in Iran run through the supreme leader, and thus Rouhani enjoys only marginal room to maneuver in his foreign policy actions.
There will certainly be opposition to Rouhani as he embarks on his drive to secure a satisfactory solution for the nuclear issue, and this opposition won’t be limited to Iran – certain circles in the United States, Israel and the Arab world would undoubtedly be threatened or angered by improvement in the U.S.- Iran relationship.
That’s why it is important for the U.S. and the West to maintain a cordial tone and receptive approach in response to Iranian actions, especially if they serve to reduce global tension and end the waste of resources on militarization and bellicose rhetoric.
Additionally, any actions by Iran vis-à-vis the U.S. and the international community could be the result of domestic struggles inside the country, or an elaborate charade in which the president and supreme leader play “bad diplomat, good diplomat,” respectively.
But until such a maneuver is unmasked, Washington and other capitals should seize on the window of opportunity with Iran. And judging by past history, they should also prepare themselves for an extremely long, arduous path, with everything from subtle diplomatic messages to hardball political wheeling and dealing.