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Thawing U.S. ties: Cuba today, Iran tomorrow?

Similar to the Cuban deal, the Obama administration has conducted back channel talks with Iranian politicians

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

American back channel diplomacy has led to the transformation of relationships between Cuba and Washington and a diplomatic deal between the Obama administration and Raul Castro’s government which is indeed historic.

After almost 53 years of Cold War between the U.S. and Cuba, the transformation of ties between these two adversaries has sparked a considerable amount of debate with respect to the normalization of ties with other longstanding rivals. The possibility of resolving other diplomatic imbroglios, specifically the revival of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Iran is a case that comes to mind.

Some Iranians showed their excitement on Twitter with regards to the Cuban deal. Some showed hope that their government will be next and they could soon see an American embassy in Tehran. However, others thought that an Iran-U.S. deal is an idealistic and unreachable dream.

Indeed, any normalization of diplomatic relationships between the Islamic Republic and the U.S. will likely have significant positive impacts on both nations, leading to a critical strategic and geopolitical shift in the Middle Eastern political chessboard. Currently, both countries have some shared strategic and geopolitical objectives in Iraq and Syria particularly when it comes to fighting ISIS.

A possible Iranian deal will remove the economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic, assisting Tehran to achieve its highest economic potential in exports, imports and wealth. The tourist industry would be revived in Iran, with many European and Americans fond of visiting thousands of years old historical sites in Esfahan Shiraz, Hamadan, and other provinces. Normalization of diplomatic ties will lead to the flow of (primarily) European companies to do business with the Islamic Republic. In addition, as Iranian youth have shown to be in favor of American brands and products, American manufactures will find a share in Iran’s market as well. Further, U.S. airplane companies will begin cooperation with Iranian airlines.

As many people are pondering on the likelihood of a deal similar to the recent Cuba agreement with Iran, the question is whether the executive order to lift the embargo on the Islamic Republic and conducting back channel diplomacy to fully open ties with Tehran is possible?

Iran’s file is more complicated and multilayered

There are some partial similarities between the Obama administration’s method to initiate a deal with Raul Castro’s government and the way it has recently approached the Islamic Republic. The major commonalities are the back channel diplomacy and talks.

Similar to the Cuban deal, the Obama administration has conducted back channel talks with Iranian politicians with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, President Obama sent a clandestine letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei highlighting some of the shared strategic, national and geopolitical interests that both nations have in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, these commonalities in diplomatic approaches have led some scholars, politicians, and policy analysts to jump to the conclusion that the same deal should be applicable to the case of Iran because such an approach was possible with Cuba and the embargo on Cuba was lifted.

But, not too fast.

Iran’s file is much more complicated, multifaceted and multilayered than the Cuban case. While Cuba is a small island close to the state of Florida with a population of approximately 11 million, Iran, with a population of over 80 million, is located in the complex geopolitical chessboard of the Middle East, and entangled among mixture of alliances and enmities in the oil rich region.

Second of all, from Washington’s perspective, Cuba has hardly been a serious threat to American strategic, geopolitical, or economic interests. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic has been a major player in scuttling U.S. foreign policy objectives and opposing its allies (including Israel) in the Middle East.

Unlike Castro, Khamenei has shown no interest in fully normalizing diplomatic ties with the United States

Majid Rafizadeh

Third, several crucial regional developments are viewed from the prism of a zero-sum game for both Iranian and American officials. Iranian leaders are less likely to accept any compromises on their top foreign policy priorities, such as: keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power, withdrawing its financial, advisory, intelligence, and military support to the Iraqi and Syrian government, and assisting formidable proxies such as Hezbollah.

Fourth, there was no international consensus on the U.S. embargo and economic sanctions against the Cuban government. As a result, President Obama can issue an executive order to lift the embargo. Many European countries were doing business with the Cuban government and the United Nations repeatedly condemned U.S. sanctions. On the other hand, the four rounds of economic sanctions on Tehran came with the approval of the U.N. Security Council. Unlike Cuba, many regional and global powers are dubious about Iran’s nuclear and regional hegemonic ambitions.

Fifth, several developments in Iran, such as revelations of clandestine nuclear sites, the possibility of testing exploding detonators for nuclear weapons in Parchin military site, and the military dimension of Tehran’s nuclear program, have led to regional and international strain.

Finally, and more fundamentally, unlike Castro, Khamenei has shown no interest in fully normalizing diplomatic ties with the United States. For example, the Obama administration received no positive response from Khamenei through its diplomacy. In addition, there is no official public debate among Iranian politicians, across various spectrums of Iran’s political system, of even allowing the opening of an American embassy in Tehran. The U.S. domestic opposition to normalize ties with Iran, particularly from the Republicans, is much higher in comparison to the Cuban case. Although the Obama administration has taken some back channel steps to negotiate with the Islamic Republic, Iran’s supreme leader has not responded with signs of willingness to normalize relationships and he has been clear in not trusting the “Great Satan. “

The signal that Iranian leaders received from the Cuban deal is not what the Western media depicts- that Iran is optimistic about normalizing ties with the U.S.. The message that Tehran received was that the Islamic Republic has to persist in its policies and that economic sanctions will ultimately fail. As foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Akfham articulated: “The defense by the Cuban government and people of their revolutionary ideals over the past 50 years shows that policies of isolation and sanctions imposed by the major powers against the wishes of independent nations are ineffective.”

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Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu.

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