US-Iran Rapprochement Faces Regional Opposition

Although much attention was given to the recent phone conversation between US President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, any real progress on the ground will face opposition from certain regional powers.

al-monitor Iranian Americans protest against a conversation between US President Barack Obama and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, outside the White House in Washington, Sept. 28, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Yuri Gripas.

Topics covered

us-iranian relations, revolutionary guard, nuclear negotiations, hassan rouhani, diplomacy, barack obama

Oct 13, 2013

Iran’s “charm offensive” at the United Nations continues to overshadow political analysis in the region, as observers were divided between opposing and supporting the new US-Iranian rapprochement. While Israel, Turkey and the Gulf countries consider the US-Iranian rapprochement to be a threat to their interests, some parties in Iran, as well as some analysts affiliated with Iran’s regional allies who have previously declared their opposition to President Hassan Rouhani’s overtures, have come together in the same trench with these powers.

The Iranian charm offensive at the UN has changed the nature of the political debate in the region, although it was merely a successful opening speech, which is expected to be followed by steps from both sides. It is too early now to make conclusive judgments about the outcome of the Iranian charm offensive, although it would be useful to examine the various obstacles hindering US-Iranian rapprochement.

Obama: a lame duck

It seems clear that the administration of US President Barack Obama is not at its best. Moreover,  the reasons or qualifications that brought him to the White House in his first term, as the most favored candidate of US institutions — namely the military institution — are no longer necessary today.

With his oratorical skills and persona, Obama reflected great ambitions and different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, which many other US elites lacked at the time. Thus, Obama was able to pull the United States out the swamp of the Middle East wars, at the lowest possible political cost.

Nevertheless, his oratorical skills did not help him reconcile the conflicting priorities in the Middle East. After a full year of his second term, Obama has failed to make any real breakthrough.

Obama gave in to Israel’s manipulation to expand settlements on the territory of the West Bank occupied since 1967, letting the “peace process” go down the drain. What’s more, Obama’s bet on Turkey and its alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood has failed, disordering his equation for the Middle East, which he based on two axes: the Sunni-led Turkey along with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Shiite-led Iran.

Furthermore, Obama has inherited dire US-Iranian relationships from his predecessor, George W. Bush. Just like Bush, he has vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, now he is trying to make a breakthrough in these relations so as to restore his policies in the Middle East, especially after the election of a pragmatic president in Iran.

Obama’s flops regarding the Middle East have been ongoing, as his promises of social justice at home have been in vain due to the opposition of his opponents in US Congress. Now, after the disruption of the US federal budget in Congress, Obama is indeed akin to a lame duck — a nickname given to US presidents approaching the end of their second terms, although Obama’s second mandate has only begun less than a year ago.

Thus, paradoxically, Obama — who has lately seemed ready to make overtures to Iran — is a fundamental obstacle to the US-Iranian rapprochement because of his inability to withstand Congress and the pressure of its powerful groups.

It is well-known that the US president has extensive executive powers under the US political system. However, the president is not able to overstep the legislative powers of Congress. In other words, the president cannot solely make the decision to lift the US economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran.

Since the sanctions are at the core of the Iranian proposed trade-off — providing guarantees of a peaceful and transparent nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions — Obama’s gradual measures in this regard are likely to undermine the US-Iranian rapprochement.

This is especially true as Tehran does not want to negotiate with Washington for a mere photo op — rather, it seeks certain gains. Most importantly, Tehran seeks to have the economic sanctions lifted and to make the United States recognize its leading role in the region.

Rouhani isn't going at it alone

Rouhani enjoys the full support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in his efforts for rapprochement with Washington. This is where the difference is clear between former President Mohammad Khatami and Rouhani.

Khatami was delegated to improve the image of Iran through photo ops in international forums and by launching the “dialogue of civilizations” initiative — nothing more. Rouhani, on the other hand, has been charged with concluding settlements and deals that affect the core of Iran’s national security. Despite this fundamental difference between the two men, one cannot state that Rouhani’s path is paved with flowers, and that things are going very smoothly on the Iranian scene.

It is no secret that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has the upper hand on the economic and political powers, is not thrilled about the rapprochement with the United States. However, the great symbols of the Revolutionary Guard have had reservations about Rouhani’s foreign policy, because its success would lead to an objective reshaping of power in Iran in line with this success. It is also true that Rouhani and the supreme leader made sure to reassure the Revolutionary Guard about its economic gains. They required it to play a bigger role in economic activity, without interfering in foreign policy.

The Revolutionary Guard was not very satisfied with [former President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, the military institution managed to expand economically and politically during Ahmadinejad’s second term in a way unprecedented since the 1979 revolution.

Similarly, it seems that the Revolutionary Guard has not been satisfied with Rouhani since the beginning. Nevertheless, the support he has received from Iranian decision-making institutions has made it difficult for the military institution to openly express its opposition to the new president.

The hurling of eggs and shoes at the Iranian president at the airport was merely a symbolic message, as opposed to the roses he received from his supporters upon his arrival from New York.

The Revolutionary Guard's chief commander, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, issued a statement saying that the telephone conversation between Rouhani and Obama “was not necessary.” This opposition does not seem radical, it is rather tactical.

One can confidently state that the Iranian department and institutions are not thrilled about opening up to Washington. However, any criticism in this regard ought to be cautious so as to not clash with the will of the supreme leader.

Negotiations are a continuation of war by other means. According to lessons drawn from Chinese guerilla wars, if you see birds fleeing from the forest, know that you are not alone. In other words, Rouhani does not want to be standing alone on the Iranian political scene.

If the balance of powers in Iran is still tipping toward Rouhani and his openness policies, it is because quick and concrete steps to lift the sanctions on Iran are expected as a result of these overtures.

Regional obstacles

It is no secret that the regional powers in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel — are not comfortable with the Iranian-US rapprochement. It is also no secret that Riyadh and Tel Aviv have lobbies in Washington whose institutional abilities must never be underestimated.

The meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week was clear. Netanyahu succeeded in mobilizing Obama to assert once again that “the military option against Iran is still on the table,” and that he is expecting “actions and not words from Iran.”

In this context, the rapprochement dynamic moves toward an inclination that does not necessarily suit Rouhani. Obama had made Iran bear the burdens while Rouhani wanted the United States to take reciprocal and quick steps to lift the sanctions in return for similar steps by Iran regarding its nuclear program.

The regional powers — regardless of their diverging objectives — have reservations on this rapprochement, since it will reduce the regional presence of Iran. These forces consider the US-Iranian rapprochement to be at their expense.

The aggravation of the Syrian crisis has increasingly weakened Iran, which supports the Syrian system. On the other hand, regional support for the Syrian opposition is expected to intensify in the coming period, to urge Obama to take more decisive positions and to further corner Iran, preventing it from having any role in the solution to the Syrian crisis, as Rouhani wants.

Rouhani isn't 'tweeting' alone

The US-Iranian rapprochement is treading on stable ground based on deep common interests between Washington and Tehran in the region — interests stemming from the geopolitical data of Iran and its proven theoretical ability to play the role of a regional partner of Washington.

Due to the aggressive environment that lasted for over 3 1/2 decades, walking this path seems laborious for both parties. Rouhani is not flying solo, even if he has been delegated to do so. His enemies are waiting for a chance to disturb his role and hurl accusations at him.

On the other hand, Obama is walking that path with shaky steps given the many obstacles facing him from the United States itself. On both sides of the road, the regional followers of this issue are watching without much enthusiasm, and each has its own reasons to put more spokes in the wheels on an already tough path.

The strategies are constant in nature, but the tactics are inevitably changing. Although the foundations of this rapprochement are well-rooted, the obstacles remain varied and tough to overcome. How, then, will the end look? It is difficult to answer this question now, but the upcoming round of negotiations between Iran and the six major countries regarding the Iranian nuclear file might shed some light and constitute another huge step on the growing rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

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