Historic shift is under way in US-Iranian relations

The two sides are talking to each other in earnest and without intermediaries for the first time in over three decades; Obama and Rouhani's short phone conversation is a big step.

Obama and Rouhani puppets UN 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama and Rouhani puppets UN 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 intermediaries.
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 effectively abandoned.
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.
“My 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 proposition.”
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 power.
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 bill.
“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.”