By Joshua Miller
Today, President Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly for the fifth time since he has been President. In it, Obama took more of a prescriptive approach to the problems around the world, specifically highlighting the Middle East and Iran.
Thirty years of mistrust and isolation have casted deep doubts on the likelihood of success of negotiations between the United States and Iran. America’s role in the coup d’état in 1953, and the history of interference in Iranian affairs has caused deep-seeded resentment from the Iranian people. Moreover, Americans view the Iranians as a direct threat and enemy of their country – the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 and attacks through Iranian proxies over the decades have solidified American distrust.
However, the tides of change may have finally arrived to set the right tone for potential negotiations. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons; and President Rouhani has just recently reiterated that the Islamic Republic will never develop a nuclear weapon.Despite declaring that the U.S. “will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction,” Obama acknowledged that his administration and the current Iranian government are exploring the prospects of improved relations.
As such, Obama has directed his Secretary of State, John Kerry, to pursue this effort with the Iranian government. However, one point of concern is derived from the uncertainty behind Rouhani’s ability to conduct a meaningful and substantive negotiation process with the United States. Rouhani is second in power to the Ayatollah of Iran, and without the blessing of the latter, negotiations are likely to result in less than fruitful results. In fact, the Ayatollah stands to gain in either situation; if the negotiations are successful, he will claim credit and be exalted; if the negotiations fail, he can berate the United States and continue his anti-western rhetoric.
However, there is more at stake then ever for the Supreme Leader, President Rouhani, and the Iranian populous. Sanctions over the past thirty years have taken an immense toll on the Iranian people, its economy, and its freedom as a state actor. Lifting these sanctions will relieve domestic pressures for the Iranian leaders, and legitimize their rule for the foreseeable future.
President Rouhani is scheduled to address the General Assembly later today. In light of these circumstances, a face-to-face meeting between Obama and Rouhani could mark the first necessary step towards nuclear negotiations between the two countries since the Islamic Revolution. Obama seems eager to make headway on the negotiations when he addressed the U.N. by identifying a paradigm shift from the Cold War to the circumstances of the modern era: “As we pursue a settlement, let us remember that this is not a zero-sum endeavor… There’s no Great Game to be won.”
A simple handshake between the Presidents may begin a thaw, but only time will tell if the two sides can resolve the nuclear problem.