Iran-U.S. relations turned especially reactive in April 2014. But buried beneath the tough rhetoric and diplomatic posturing are indications of long-term potential for improved relations.
After this tumultuous month of diplomacy, the casual observer of Tehran-Washington relations can be forgiven for having a pessimistic outlook.
What should have been a month of increased partnership and confidence-building following recent talks between Iran and the P5+1 turned into a month of finger-pointing, manoeuvring and widespread tension.
Ambassador nomination backfires
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s nomination of his close aide, Hamid Aboutalebi, as Iran’s ambassador to the UN backfired when reports surfaced of his involvement–albeit minor—in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by an Islamist student group.
Whether the move was premeditated or simply a miscalculation, so began a dizzying chain of events, which saw top senators from both US parties labelling the proposed envoy “an acknowledged terrorist” and urging Congress to “push back in kind.”
Iranian lawmakers accused Washington of “sheer interference” and pledged to take legal action to support the choice. President Obama countered just days later by signing a bipartisan bill aimed at denying entry visas to diplomats like Aboutalebi with a background of “terrorist activity.”
Further tit-for-tats ensued. Iran’s judiciary made public the secret retrial of former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, arrested in Iran in August 2011 while visiting relatives, and sentenced him to ten years in prison. Just days later, U.S. officials finally reached a settlement to seize an up-scale, 36-story Manhattan building with alleged links to Iran and distribute proceeds from the sale to the families of victims of previous terrorist attacks allegedly carried out by Tehran’s proxies.
Iran-U.S. affairs have seen similar retaliatory diplomatic wrangling before. However, few have come at such a crucial time, on the cusp of reaching a nuclear agreement and achieving what could be a long-term thaw in relations.
Administrations face similar political roadblocks
Rouhani, a moderate cleric with a reformist bent reminiscent of Mohammad Khatami a decade ago, has faced the same type of opposition from Ayatollah Khamenei and other hard-line clerics and functionaries within the regime that his predecessor encountered.
Iran’s young population has run up against increased secularism, making this demographic wary of both domestic reforms and efforts towards détente with the West. The clash also explains this month’s brutal crackdown on dissenters at Evin Prison, a subsequent media clampdown and its likening of Iran’s nuclear deal with the West to the Holocaust.
As such, a hard-nosed approach by Rouhani and his Western-trained senior officials must be seen in the context of appeasing critical establishment elements. Rallying domestic opposition to foreign reprisals also comes in handy the wake of massive reductions to Iran’s fuel subsidies.
Obama, for his part, has long dealt with obstinate resistance from both houses of Congress for even engaging the Iranian theocracy in nuclear talks, not to mention purportedly appeasing Hezbollah and Syria, Iran’s two primary foreign surrogates.
Acting tough against the Iranian boogeyman is one of the few ways his administration can buy some breathing room. A rare thank-you note from Senator Ted Cruz, one of Obama’s main Republican adversaries, is a testament to this winning strategy.
Relations improving under the political surface
Lost beneath the headlines have been a series of steps both sides have taken not only to defuse the current situation but also to move the long-running reconciliation process forward.
In April, the U.S. loosened its sanctions regime enough to allow Boeing to sell certain spare parts for Tehran’s passenger plane fleet, a key demand of many humanitarian groups which have blamed U.S. export restrictions for the poor state of Iran’s accident-prone aviation sector.
The Iranian military itself jettisoned earlier plans to deploy a number of its warships near America’s maritime border in the Atlantic “due to a change in schedule.”
What is more, some of the aforementioned disagreements between Tehran and Washington obscured their own noteworthy silver linings. Obama, for example, issued a rare signing statement signaling that he views Aboutalebi’s visa ban as unconstitutional and leaving open the possibility of eventually accepting his nomination. Likewise, Hekmati’s ten-year jail term could be viewed as lenient. His previous espionage charges which initially resulted in a life sentence were dropped. There is even the chance that he could be released on good behavior by the end of the year.
Such two-sided developments are the new norm in Iran-U.S. rapprochement. U.S. policymakers are acutely aware of right-wing, often-hawkish challenges to incumbents on both sides of the aisle in the upcoming elections. But they are also conscious that the American populace has little appetite for further military escapades, the IAEA has confirmed that Tehran has met its targets for a marked reduction in uranium enrichment ahead of schedule, and recent large-scale European delegations to the Islamic Republic aimed at reopening business and trade links will soon lead to U.S.
companies clamoring to do the same.
President Rouhani and his allies in power face similar pressure from Iranian liberals expecting sanctions relief and better relations with the West and from conservatives wary of negotiating away too many nuclear rights. The U.S.-Gulf Arab alliance also remains an ever-present consideration.
Both sides have made positive steps toward to this end in the past weeks. And both sides’ lasting interests depend on a permanent deal to be reached by the July deadline. Consequently, this last month has tested Iran-U.S. relations, but has not altered its underlying calculus.