The new Iranian policy of openness, as reflected in the many messages sent around since the election of Hassan Rouhani as president on June 14, is considered by skeptics and many foes of the Iranian regime a mere charm offensive.
The "najjadism" rhetoric — in reference to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — has been replaced by Rouhani’s edited diplomacy. Despite his call for “constructive engagement” and for working together to end the "unhealthy rivalries and interferences," skeptics and foes still consider that these are no more than an exercise in public relations and image improvement. For them, there will never be a change of policy.
In politics, words are not sufficient proof to indicate an actual change. Yet, there are many reasons to bet on this being a serious opportunity for genuine change:
- The deteriorating economic conditions in Iran — mainly due to sanctions and a lack of economic focus by Ahmadinejad, who invested much of his power in foreign policy — have created a lot of resentment and could threaten internal social stability.
- In the context of the fight for Syria as one of the most vital strategic cards in the hands of Iran — no matter the cost — it becomes important to develop an alternative option. This means engaging the international opposition camp on Syria in the search for a solution. Iran indicated its willingness to engage in mediation diplomacy without necessarily reaching an agreement with its foes in the end.
- Proxy conflicts, mainly in Syria but also in most Arab countries opposing Iran, are creating and consolidating sectarian tension that threatens Iranian interests by isolating it — as a Shiite power — from many Sunni Arab societies. Previously, Iran was able to cultivate good relations and influence in these societies.
- Iran holds strong cards as a regional power and considers that perhaps using less-confrontational language and discourse could allow it to be accepted as a key regional partner in the Middle East.
- There is a strong history of cooperation with its international and regional foes on Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran could be useful in fighting a growing or returning common enemy such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Iran is conducting a dual openness, targeting both international and regional actors — mainly the United States and Saudi Arabia. The US and Western approach of considering the nuclear issue as the entry point to other issues in the Middle East has proven to be futile, as it maintains tension, threats and confrontation with Iran. Drawing on the US experience with China in 1972 — when then-US President Richard Nixon's visit to the People's Republic of China was an important step in formally normalizing relations between the two countries — a US opening could shift to a comprehensive approach with Iran, putting all issues of contention on the table. In doing so, Washington must consult and coordinate with its Arab friends and allies. This approach suggests recognizing Iran’s status as a regional power with regional interests and its role, and the nature of it, without necessarily agreeing. The nuclear issue should be integrated into this comprehensive approach — something that could facilitate successfully dealing with this. The United States must start a one-on-one discussion with Iran on the nuclear issue, as part of a larger frame of discussion, to be further backed by the "six plus one" — the P5+1 plus Israel. Russia indicated its willingness to help, and was welcomed by Iran.
One must remember that the nuclear issue is a nonpartisan issue in Iran. It is an issue of national pride and recognition of Iran’s regional status and interests.
Integrating Iran in the efforts to reach a solution on Syria — according to the Geneva II formula — is not an easy task. But definitely by excluding Iran it will be much more difficult. The comprehensive approach based on a direct engagement could help address burning issues, from Yemen to Lebanon. It will provide the opportunity to contain certain crises and perhaps contribute to settle others. War with Iran is not a solution, it is a recipe for total anarchy in the Middle East — a lose-lose formula. The grand bargain approach, if reached, does not mean excluding other regional powers or finding deals at their expense. It rather means including Iran — despite differences in interests and priorities — as a partner, even if it is a difficult one to deal with. This could help turn a new page in a Middle East torn by many — often interrelated — conflicts.
Ambassador Nassif Hitti is a senior Arab League official and the former head of the Arab League Mission in Paris. He is a former representative to UNESCO and a member of the Al-Monitor board of directors. The views he presents here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.