"Either you let me play or I will spoil your game!"
This is the sound of an unhappy child that no one wants to play with but who just won’t take “no” for an answer; a sound that has been heard repeatedly in just about any unsupervised ball game. Sometimes the child even charges onto the field to snatch the ball.
This has been Iran for decades, playing the role on a global scale. Although, the difference is that Iran never wanted to play by the rules of the game, it wanted others to adhere to its version of the game, one where it could relive the “glory” of its past.
Iran of the past
The Iranian puppeteer, Ayatollah Khamenei, is still pulling the strings despite Rowhani’s assertion of Khamenei’s support.Walid Jawad
Iran’s attitude has long been guided by animosity and steeped in mistrust causing its policies to come across as irrational. Indeed, for the last eight years, such a view has been confirmed by the words and deeds of its public face, former president Ahmadinejad, who made policies that seemed to do nothing to advance Iran’s national interest.
There is no justification for the self-inflicted economic sanctions and the resulting marginalization Iran’s people have been suffering from. Verbally, Iran made a few outlandish statements including threatening Bahrain earlier this year, homophobic declarations and denial of the holocaust in addition to interfering in sovereign states affairs as it propped up proxies to do its bidding in the region, i.e. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Among Iran’s questionable deeds was its threatening posture in the waters of the Persian Gulf not to mention the U.N. General Assembly theatrics of Ahmadinejad among other colorful events and statements.
The prevailing wisdom is that the previous president didn’t represent the Iranian people. The people’s unsuccessful revolt protesting the 2009 presidential election results was a clear indication of where Iranians stood. The Green Revolution further emphasized the extent to which the Iranian people were unhappy with Ahmadinejad’s erratic leadership. Despite the protestors’ valiant efforts, the outcome wasn’t in their favor. When the electorate was given the chance to choose, they elected a rational candidate to move the country back to the realm of reality: Hassan Rowhani. The global community received the Iranian people’s choice with glee, so much so that the U.S. President Barack Obama placed a call to Rowhani, a first in over three decades between the leaders of the two countries. This didn’t come in a vacuum, the U.S. positive impression of Rowhani dates back to some 27 years ago ago when he was a senior defense official participating in secret meetings with President Reagan’s National Security Council staff. Then senior NSC staffer, Howard Teicher, said that “[Rowhani] said many things at the time that showed he wanted to deal with us and we could deal with them.” At its core, the U.S. wants to deal with a rational party and they found it in Rowhani.
U.S. and Iran
It is interesting to see the American and Iranian presidents’ dance to a wishful tune, but reality will halt the music sooner than they would like if they don’t act quickly. The Iranian puppeteer, Ayatollah Khamenei, is still pulling the strings despite Rowhani’s assertion of Khamenei’s support. There is no independent verification confirming a change in direction by the supreme leader yielding to the Iranian electorate or to the global community on the thorny issue of its nuclear program.
Last week’s nuclear talks offered U.S. Secretary of State Kerry an opportunity to engage Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarifin in diplomatically flirtatious banter. Kerry said “I think all of us were pleased that Foreign Minister Zarif came and made a presentation to us, which was very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out, with respect to the possibilities for the future,” and insisted that a resolution could be reached within a matter of months if Iran is forthcoming. No doubt the U.S. will hold Iran’s feet to the fire to guarantee a peaceful nuclear program, but consideration for regional politics has to be front and center to address the concerns of many of Iran’s neighbors.
It is easier for the U.S. to give Iran the benefit of the doubt considering that Iran’s regional influence is receding with a weak Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a bleak outlook for Hezbollah in Lebanon and a scrambling Hamas. But the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Israel have more immediate issues to deal with. Israel has its finger on the trigger ready to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and according to its PM Netanyahu “will keep all action on [the] table ... We will do whatever is necessary to defend ourselves.” He confirmed that “Israel will stand alone if it needs to” to ensure an Iran that is free of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is cheerleading the U.S. to do what it can to deny Iran the chance to be a nuclear bully in the region, including the use of force. Further, Turkey al-Faisal was quoted as saying that Saudi is prepared to procure “off the shelf” nuclear weapons if Iran should be allowed to gain the nuclear advantage. The odds of Iran joining the nuclear weapons club are very limited.
It is time for Iran to accept the limitation of its nuclear ambition; it is not the only avenue for earning respect. Iran is poised to gain the respect and dignity it has been seeking should it work within the margins offered for a peaceful nuclear energy program. The Supreme leader’s reliance on adversarial tactics has backfired leading to Iran becoming an isolated rogue state. The Persian empire of the past will never be allowed to rise again to conquer and dominate, particularly not by becoming a nuclear power. But it can relive its glorious past as a contributing member of the global community with respect and pride. The two opposing examples of Libya, which was welcomed to the family of nations after it relinquished its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program in 2003, and the North Korean example, which is still suffering economically due to its nuclear obsession, should provide the Ayatollah a clearer vision of the choice he must make. Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy will become a reality if it cooperates with the international community. Having said that, it’s a matter of saving-face for Iran which must be fully embraced by the international community.
The Obama administration, along with the international community, will have to help Iran to feel dignified as it contemplates the upcoming P5+1 talks scheduled for Oct. 28, without compromising on the verifiable actions it must agree to insuring a peaceful nuclear program. Rowhani is the ideal interlocutor to mediate for his country. He knows what needs to be done and the margins the Ayatollah is willing to work with; he knows not to appear defeated and to deny the “West” the appearance of imposing its will over his country and the need to announce a triumph for the Iranian people. The P5+1 must bring to the table proposals that offer Rowhani the leverage he needs to persuade the supreme leader to agree to the demands made of Iran.
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj