NEW YORK – If officials in the Obama administration are to be believed, a
dramatic shift is under way in US-Iranian relations.
On the adviser,
cabinet and presidential levels – for the first time in over three decades – the
two sides are talking to each other in earnest and without
That development alone, the US believes, is a signal of
Iran’s genuine interest in a negotiated settlement and the effectiveness of
their sanctions regimen, tightened significantly over the past two years to lead
to this very moment, when a thaw in relations may finally be in the strategic
interests of the Islamic Republic.
The cold Swiss channel, used for years
as the go-between to transfer messages from Washington to Tehran, has been
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s private meeting
with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif this week included no
deputies or note-takers. And while the US offered a brief encounter between
Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United
Nations General Assembly in New York at the last minute (which did not take
place), it was Rouhani, according to the White House, who suggested the
resulting 15- minute phone call, which began with congratulatory praise from
Obama on his counterpart’s election and ended with a farewell from the US
president in Farsi.
Throughout August and September, US officials denied
reports of efforts to coordinate direct contact with the Iranians at the UN. But
the two parties had in fact been in touch for some time before the summit. The
US saw the opening of the UN General Assembly as an important moment in which
they could easily test Iran’s seriousness, and the political will of Rouhani,
who was elected on a promise to improve relations with the West.
sense is they’ve made a decision, as we have, to test the proposition,” one
senior State Department official said, “as are we testing the
Outsiders remain skeptical.
The US government admits
that Rouhani could not meet Obama because hardliners at home still consider
anti-Americanism a central tenet of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 – the last
time the two sides spoke at the presidential level.
The prospect of not
just a deal compromising Iran’s nuclear program, but of “deeper relations” with
the US – as Obama proposed to Rouhani – is cringe-worthy to a conservative
political alignment in Tehran that still holds significant influence and
In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators have already come
out against any change in sanctions policy based on the “underwhelming”
performance of Rouhani this week.
That group includes Sen. Bob Menendez
(D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), an important figure on matters of foreign
policy in the upper chamber.
Perhaps more important than any one phone
call, the opinions of these men matter greatly, as the Senate will soon consider
a bill that could eliminate all waivers on companies in allied nations doing
business with Iranian oil firms. The White House wants to reserve the right to
exempt those companies from financial penalty and to lift sanctions in the event
of a diplomatic breakthrough.
That sets up yet another showdown with
Congress, after the House of Representatives already passed their version of the
“If we can make progress – and it’s a big if, I’d put that in
capital letters, italics, and bold – if we can make progress on the negotiating
track, and the day comes when there is sufficient concrete results on the table
to either suspend or ultimately lift sanctions, we want to be able to do so,”
the senior State Department official told reporters.
Asked by The
Jerusalem Post how the US can further tighten sanctions without eliminating
exemptions, as the House bill does, the official responded: “We’re continuing to
work with Congress.”