Time ripe for Iran reset
June 24th, 2013
02:30 PM ET

Time ripe for Iran reset

By Ali Vaez, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group’s senior Iran analyst. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

The history of Iran-U.S. relations is littered with missed opportunities. The Obama administration should make sure that the victory of a moderate president in Iran doesn’t become another one.

Sending a letter of congratulation to the new president on his inauguration day – August 3 – would be a positive first step. Conservatives in Tehran will have to bite their tongues, remembering Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s congratulatory note to Obama in 2009. Republicans in the U.S. Congress, meanwhile, will have a hard time accusing the president of somehow endorsing Iran’s faulty electoral process, given that most U.S. allies in that region don’t even hold elections.

But more important than recognizing the legitimacy of a political process in which well over half of Iran’s population participated is signaling to Iran’s leadership that Washington is willing to find some sort of common ground moving forward. This could, for example, include reversing the U.S. objection to Iran attending the Geneva 2 conference on the future of Syria, a move that could be justified by Tehran’s new political face.

This wouldn’t be the first time that the Obama administration has tried to shake things up. Almost four years ago, President Obama made a genuine effort to mend Washington’s relations with Tehran when in a televised message he uttered the official name of America’s adversary – the Islamic Republic of Iran – or the first time since the 1979 revolution. He then went further by sending two letters to the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But those efforts came to naught as Iran descended into turmoil following the disputed 2009 presidential election.

More from CNN: New hope for Iran and U.S.?

Since then, U.S.-Iran relations have cooled further. But on June 14, the political ground shifted in Iran when Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic moderate, was elected president. His victory blindsided observers both inside and outside of Iran. Indeed, despite much speculation ahead of polling day, the election was neither an ignominious charade nor a dull intra-conservative affair. The turnout was impressive and the outcome unexpected.

It is, of course, easy to be skeptical about how much will change. After all, Rouhani is the ultimate regime insider, having served for three decades and survived all of the upheaval. Some will therefore attribute his victory to behind-the-scenes politicking or even see it as part of a plan for advancing the nuclear program. Others will contend that as long as the Supreme Leader remains in charge, the president is irrelevant.

Yet the presidential election result more likely came about because of, not in spite of, the Supreme Leader, who allowed Rouhani to enter the race, gain momentum and win. In the past, Khamenei had directly, or through the powerful Guardian Council, barred candidates from the electoral arena. But he did not block Rouhani, who appears to remain in the good graces of Khamenei and is his personal representative to Iran’s influential National Security Council. As such, he is likely to enjoy the leader’s support in governing.

More from GPS: How u.S. should respond to Iran election

All this said, the president-elect is far from being a pitchman. Rouhani also has good relations with the reformists and centrists whom Khamenei has sought to marginalize. While constitutionally the leader’s authority trumps that of the president, Rouhani could still have meaningful impact on agenda setting and major policy decisions. In addition, his tone and team selections will affect the way Iran conducts its relations with the outside world – and its nuclear negotiations with world powers.

The reality is that it would be hard for the leadership to ignore the strong demand for change that surfaced during the campaign and crystallized in Rouhani’s victory. That change necessitates bringing Iran out of isolation, rehabilitating its anemic economy, and finding a way to lift sanctions. Because Iran’s complex political system inherently prefers continuity over change, expecting a radical policy shift might prove wishful thinking. But gradual change is possible, and Washington now has a choice – it can help cultivate this opportunity or squander it.

Sadly, the White House’s initial reaction was not promising. Instead of congratulating the president, who has the support of a significant part of Iran’s population, it said that “…despite [the] government obstacles and limitations, the Iranian people were determined to act to shape their future.”

Other unconstructive forces have, meanwhile, taken on a life of their own. Sanctions that were enacted in January will come into effect next month. The Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012 blacklists the entire energy, shipping, shipbuilding and port operating sectors in Iran. And more sanctions are in the pipeline. It is also quite likely that, absent any progress in negotiations, Iran’s relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency might take a turn for the worse when the agency’s board meets in September, even before the new Iranian president has settled in.

Still, although it is not easy to change these dynamics, it should be possible to avoid exacerbating them. Instead of piling on more sanctions and threatening the new Iranian administration with military force by reminding them that “all options are on the table” but that “containment is not,” President Obama should repeat and act on his message of four years ago that an unclenched fist begets an extended hand.

The Iranian people have opted for change, and the Iranian regime has now countenanced it. The ball is in President Obama’s court.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • Iran • United States

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soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. JAL

    There is a deep guardian psychology in Iran.

    June 24, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  2. Joe

    Useless article. Naivete written by some one living in a dream. US does not want, can not and will not give anything Iran. There are now a zillion sanctions on Iran which will never be removed. Many of UN/US sanctions against Iraq from Saddam era are still in place. To expect that Iran will get any kind of meaningful relief is a foolish dream. With that in mind, Iran has to look at Libya that gave up its nuclear program and "reset" its relation with west to know what to do. The only way for Iran is to develop nuclear weapons and safeguards itself from the inevitable invasion which will happen if Iran does not have nuclear weapons. There is absolutely no other way. Iran has to depend on itself from now on. Economically, militarily and politically. Iran would make its greatest mistakes if it gives in.

    June 24, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Reply
    • EarthView

      Iran does not need nukes. Iran has a strong conventional military that is sufficient for its defense. Neither Israel nor the U.S. will dare attack Iran. Israel is insignificant and irrelevant. The U.S. in turn is terrified of what Iran can do to its bases and ships in the Persian Gulf.

      On the other hand, I agree with you that the U.S. will offer nothing to Iran. Obama doesn't even have the power to offer any compromises to Iran since Congress and Israel are totally implacable and will crucify him.

      The solution for Iran is to develop its industry and establish trade relations with other countries despite the stupid sanctions. It can also take legal actions in Europe against the illegal sanctions. Already the highest British court has ruled that sanctions on a major private Iranian bank were illegal. In the end, the U.S. will become irrelevant. Iran does not need the U.S. to flourish. Even now it is not using the dollar for foreign transactions.

      June 24, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Reply
      • Jorge Quinones

        Dear Earview, I think your view is not very bright. No matter how big your army is, it is no match to nuclear weapons and the US. and Israel know it. Maybe that is why Iran may be getting those weapons to defend itself and to make sure that there is balance of power which is non-existing in the middle east with all the atomic weapon that Israel has.

        June 25, 2013 at 11:56 am |
      • EarthView

        Jorge Quinones: You don't understand. Nuclear weapons are useless in today's world. Nobody can use them realistically. Do you think that the U.S. or Israel is just going to drop a nuclear bomb on Tehran out of the blue? Do you have a brain?

        June 25, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
      • Sofia

        If Iran has WMD then its less likely they will be attacked by the US or Israel. I think this is the main reason why they want them. Also Iran govt HAS TO GO! They are some bad ppl and Iranians deserve better human rights.

        June 25, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
      • desert voice

        Both Quiniones and Earthview make valid points. The conclusion is inescapable. Iran needs a Non Agression Treaty with Israel and the U.S. in exchange for nukes! I would even venture to say, Iran needs such a treaty with all nuclear powers now existing!

        June 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
      • Change Iran Now

        Trying to make distinctions in Iran's political factions is like trying to make distinctions between environmentalists and pro-choice folks in the Democratic Party or Tea Partiers and the Religious Right in the Republican Party. They're all variations in shading of the same political stripe and in Iran's case all factions are colored Khamenei. Don't think for a minute that he does not firmly grasp the reins of power when it comes to Iran's foreign policy and nuclear weapons program. As the last two Iranian presidents have shown, when you run afoul of Khamenei, you're liable to find yourself on the outside looking in and believe me when I say Rouhani knows that lesson all too well after working for Khamenei for the last 16 years. He is about as much as a moderate as a rabid dog is healthy. Of course, the West can test that moderation to see if he, for example pulls out of Syria or releases the hundreds of dissidents they have locked up in Iranian prisons. That would be a true test we could all see and recognize.

        July 1, 2013 at 1:59 am |
    • Jack O'Brien

      SPOT ON !! Iran would make a HUGE mistake if it thinks the West (or the people that control their politics) will EVER let Iran rise. Joe's comment is "right on", Iran NEEDS to stand on its own two feet and start regional and extra-regional activities reconnaissance efforts both is destabilizing the dictatorship monarchies in the region as well as creating unimaginable problems for their number enemy in the region. Iran would do well to be the first to PUNCH. There is no other way, and to guarantee its survival it better develop those ungodly nasty weapons real quick if it does not want to get invaded.

      June 29, 2013 at 7:42 am | Reply
  3. Anonymous

    Let's just hope that this new leader of Iran won't cave in to the West and stand his ground. The politicians in Washington need to be more flexible in this regard and Iran needs to make the same deal at the U.N. as South Africa, that is, have nuclear energy but no nuclear weapons.

    June 24, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  4. Mashayekhi

    I believe, The article is messy and very disorganized.
    In this paper, one-sided arguments and conclusions are wrong, and the author does not really understand the situation correctly, but the article points out, the needs of sending a positive message from U.S. to this change and readiness for negotiation without any preconditions.

    June 24, 2013 at 7:22 pm | Reply
    • Hossein

      Why don't you elaborate more on why the article is messy, disorganized and one sided and has a wrong conclusion and that the author does not really understand the situation correctly as you claim? It is always easy to trash a writer like that, but that doesn't work anymore.

      June 25, 2013 at 2:38 am | Reply
  5. hood30

    I dont think we will see any change...maybe rouhani will be a bit nicer then with the same goal and policy.

    June 25, 2013 at 1:18 am | Reply
  6. persika

    For the sake of American and even Israeli interest, the harsh policy against Iran should be change. The policy of ignoring Iran in the middle east resulted on absolute no fruit in the past 30 years, and unfortunately the west is digging more and more in the wrong path against the reality of the middle east. you can not let the state of Rhode Island decide for the new England area, against the interest of the state of for example New York . You can't ignore NY in the region of new England just because of its geopolitical weight. the same concept apply to middle east. Ignoring Iran, and letting this little chicks like Qatar ,or UAE , or even Saudi to guide the American's interest, will result the chaos as it is now, in Syria, and the rest of middle east. An immediate policy change with Iran, will stabilize the region and the world economy.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:24 am | Reply
    • Jack Hollis

      Your talent appears to be more along the line of children's books instead of world politics. Why do you show the world how foolish you are by posting such nonsense?

      June 25, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
    • Sofia

      Ignore? US has put non stop pressure on Iran for 30 years now and it's well deserved. Not true about Iran not having a fruit, that's pure nonsense. Also ppl like you who support Irans brutal govt should pack up your bags and move to Iran!

      June 25, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Reply
      • rex

        idiot, you have no idea how much the government has improved life there, it has only been recently under the new 2012 sanctions that life has become harder, for all you dimwits who dont live in iran but critizise its government I suggest you actually move there and compare living conditions under the shah, this gov is the best thing that has ever happend to iran.

        June 26, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
      • jOE g

        By the way maybe you should think about moving also .Is it black or white or + or – .I THINK WE SHOULD GIVE IT A TRY...I have nothing against Iran!!!!!!

        June 27, 2013 at 1:54 am |
  7. Betty Lee

    YEs, yes, may our president move beyond the myopic views of some people who demonize Iran and fail to see that US will benefit with steps to normalize relationships and assure Iran people and their government that US will never use nuclear weapons against Iran and will not use military forces against Iran except in cases where Iran attacks any other country. If US would work to seriously move toward a nuclear weapon free world in connection with other countries which have nuclear weapons then we wouldn't sound so hypocritical with our hysteria against Iran. Why does US need to build up fear of Iran? If President Clinton has listened to the diehards, he wouldn't have normalized relationships years ago with Vietnam. A smart move that we need to use more often in the world...for example with Cuba. Get real, America. Yes, Israel is another question to be answered with a push for their honest and swift movement toward a two state solution, dismantle settlements, and end occupation. Fifty years is enough. Only Eisenhower could stand up to their drive to occupy all Palestine land. So many vested interests in continuing the idea of Iran as enemy. Not holding my breath.

    June 25, 2013 at 5:48 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well said, Betty Lee. However, the idea of a nuclear free world is a very bad idea since it will lead to WW3! The U.S. along with Great Britain and France will invade Russia since they no longer fear a nuclear attack while J apan will rearm itself and invade China! This conflict will even spread to Latin America but who in their right mind wants that?

      June 25, 2013 at 8:30 am | Reply
  8. Towel Heads

    I'll bet that hair is "ripe" under that stupid towel. Get with the times and remove that silly, stupid looking, towel!!!

    June 25, 2013 at 9:23 am | Reply
  9. j. von hettlingen

    The turnout was high on election day and many Iranians voted for Rouhani. The supreme leader must have sensed that Rouhani was the dark horse and would have had the election rigged in favour of the mayor of Teheran, had he rejected his victory. Although the supreme leader is known to be a hardliner, he might still want changes. By letting the president to carry out the tasks, he could wash his hands of failures, should things go wrong. Yes, there are opportunities that the two countries normalise the relationship. Now we have to see, who – Obama or the supreme leader – gets off his high horse first.

    June 25, 2013 at 9:35 am | Reply
    • Hassan B.

      Have you heard the expression “viper will not breed pigeon”
      There is no hope of any reform/change in this regime! The people’s needs, reform or change would not happen unless a regime change by the people and it will happen. Iranian people deserve having a decent life and freedom as well.
      Best regards,
      Hassan

      June 25, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Reply
      • Hashman

        The only thing guaranteed to happen with an overthrowing of the Iranian regime is that thousands upon thousands of people will die in the cause of the collapse of the central government. Everyone from the Chinese and Russians to the Saudis and the US will want a piece of the pie, and will fuel a civil war that will last at least a decade. At the end of it (at which point the country will most likely be split up), the new regime(s) will be a toss-up – anything from secular dictatorship(s) to the even more religiously extreme will take over. Reform might be slow, but at least with persistence, it is guaranteed to give results.

        June 26, 2013 at 12:35 am |
  10. Strike

    If not now, when?

    The U.S. Neocon-Zionist conspiracy scuttled Iran's efforts at peace in 2003, now it's the turn of the U.S. to extend its hand to atone for the barbaric treatment of Iran which helped the U.S. to defeat the Taleban in late 2001 and was rewarded with the "Axis of Evil" description.

    Clearly Israel was hoping all its potential regional enemies would be annihilated so it could continue humiliating and stealing Palestinians' lands while staying below the radar of global opinion. So Obama has a big fight on his hands, not with Iran but with Israel.

    June 25, 2013 at 10:57 am | Reply
  11. Altee11

    Iran's leaders have been acting very agressively against the USA for nearly 35 years so it is actually time for Tehran to reach out to the USA.

    June 25, 2013 at 11:49 am | Reply
  12. Hassan B.

    There is no place for a “moderate” inside the regime. A “moderate” is already eliminated or would be eliminating in this government if there is anyone left alive. The supreme leader particularly, can not accept and can not tolerate a moderate as a president; the government is so fragile and supreme leader knows that very well. Even though, Mr. Rouhani is not and can not be a moderate; people voted for him just to say no to supreme leader. As long as nuclear issue is concern, international community has to deal with Khamenei not the president or any other official inside the government, or anybody else. Khamenei is and has been buying time to develop nuclear bomb. Our president Obama sent 2 letters to the supreme leader and what was his respond? It is good to be optimistic, but Mr. Vaez is too optimistic and too unrealistic about the situation in Iran. Let’s wait see what happened in the next few month, I do personally would see no progress in life of the people and more turmoil is on the way although we like it or not!! Unfortunately, that would be a huge cost of life for that…

    June 25, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  13. zkkhan

    The Iranian people have opted for change, and the Iranian regime has now countenanced it. The ball is in President Obama’s court. One has to see if it is a real change or cosmetic one. Who actually enjoys the power and how he is thinking will decide the future outcome.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
  14. marian

    There would not be any positive change to the status of women . Clergies are milking in ... They are stupid and dangerous .
    Would be lots of disappointments from the educated residents .

    June 25, 2013 at 8:52 pm | Reply
  15. bruce

    SLAM DUNK!!!!

    June 25, 2013 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  16. Iran=Russia-china=Hezbollah= Syria- shia= Iraqi shiia= evil

    DO NOT let this towel head president fools you , attack Iran now before it is too late wake up USA, UK, FRANCE AND NATO wake up...SYRIA AND HEZBOLLAH MUST BE FIRST AND IRAN SHOULD BE SECOND IF YOU WANT REAL PEACE GET RED OF THOSE SHIIA SNAKES.

    June 26, 2013 at 12:28 am | Reply
    • rex

      lol stupid Wahhabi, go kill some shias to go the heaven why don't you,

      June 26, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  17. Javad

    f

    June 26, 2013 at 7:32 am | Reply
  18. Javad12

    Jews, ommmm!

    June 26, 2013 at 7:34 am | Reply
  19. mf3

    This is their senior analyst? No wonder they don't have a clue! All his reasoning is based on premises that are not true and to think that gestures will override the realities of the increasing energy needs of the west , their need to control their energy resources and their superior fire power is naive and stupid. the likes of Kerry and Obama need to try their hypothesis until their head hits a hard rock. And to think that Khamenei and Rowhani are stupid enough to fall for "gestures" is even more stupid.

    June 26, 2013 at 8:59 am | Reply
  20. iran = russia= china= syria= iraq= hizboallah= evil= terrorists

    fk the wahabi and fk iran and fk all towel heads those idiots in iran iraq and syria are the dangerous peace of fk ever beside those cammel drivers wahabies all of u killers rapists usa and canada must sent back all towel head to iran and saudi those countries are evil

    June 26, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Reply
    • Canadian

      DO NOT INCLUDE CANADA IN YOUR STATEMENT. WE BELIEVE IN THE CHARTER OF RIGHTS .

      July 2, 2013 at 1:25 am | Reply
  21. BoobieHoodlam

    Bomb the new guy! Drone fleet ready.

    June 26, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  22. sand

    all jews are evil where ever the jews where they caused damage when they where in europe they started ww2 in the middle east they are damaging everything they jews, usa, britain and australia they all need to get nuked and removed from this earth.

    June 27, 2013 at 1:47 am | Reply
    • Phil

      What is your problem?

      July 2, 2013 at 10:59 am | Reply
  23. markjuliansmith

    "..moderate president in Iran"

    It is exactly the same a saying Goebbels was more or less 'moderate' than Hitler.

    As Egypt and Turkey are clearly showing humanity again (how many times do you want a repeat performance) – there is no such thing as a 'moderate' Islamist as there is no such thing as a moderate Nazi. It comes from the fact both dogmas have exactly the same construct of Other and in time and space both both inform exactly the same outcomes.

    As Tony Blair said Muslims behavioral spectrum includes terror for excatly the same forNazis for exactly the same reason.

    Any 'moderation' as we clearly clearly see in Syria is a lull only of the genocide of Other.

    June 27, 2013 at 5:30 am | Reply
  24. Rick McDaniel

    I advocate for cautious optimism, that we might see some, not a lot, of positive change from this change in leadership.

    I shall hope that happens, in any case.

    June 27, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Reply
    • Phil

      Well put.

      July 2, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
  25. ВАСИЛЬ ДОБРИ

    Политический радикализм руководства Соединенных Штатов и исламский радикализм иранского духовенства
    не имеют и ближайшие годы не будут иметь точек соприкосновения, даже если возгорятся желания политических
    элит этих государств. Социально-политическое сознание простых иранцев колебнулось при выборе новой
    обнадеживающей кандидатуры президента Ирана, но это лишь призрачное колебание.
    Иранское общество вышло на более высокий уровень интеллектуального , экономического и военного
    развития, что своим характером движения диктует ведения самостоятельной политики в регионе Средней Азии и Ближнего Востока. Если учесть, что исламские радикальные ценности духовенства Ирана не могут
    меняться под политическую коньюнктуру, то такая позиция приобретает консолидирующую роль в
    исламском мире, независимо от конфессиональной ориентации мусульман. Именно это не воспринимается
    западными политиками с желанием силового решения вопросов.

    June 29, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  26. Phil

    What is your problem?

    July 2, 2013 at 11:00 am | Reply
  27. Zafar Rizvi

    The days are gone to prepare the ground for US through useless articles like this. Iran is well set and does need any resetting. Any move to show softness toward establishing relations with US will be a big mistake. The track record of US with friends is not good. The weak black president should not forget what treatment was given to blacks in US in early sixties. In the presence of white American and control of Jews in US, there will be not be any advantage to Iranfor showing softness towards US. Iranian should continue their move towards progress with full pace,when the destination is close. To counter sanctions Iran should concentrate on business with the neighboring countries without involving US dollar for business.

    July 15, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Reply

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