United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

US-Iran: Other Signs of New Times

Robin Wright

            A week of remarkable U.S.-Iran diplomacy has been followed by other indications of shifting tones in both the Islamic Republic and the United States. Among the most startling was the headline “On the Wave of Telephone Diplomacy” in Iran’s Bahar newspaper.
            Iran’s Shargh newspaper also ran a front-page interview with Alan Eyre, the State Department’s top Iran watcher. Eyre told The Iran Primer that it was his first interview with an Iranian paper—in Iran. The picture Shargh opted to use was almost wistful.
            This is an excerpt translated by The Washington Post from the interview:

Shargh: How can closer ties between Iran and the U.S. help to resolve the nuclear issue?

Alan Eyre: As Obama and Rouhani remarked, the opposite is correct, that it is solving the nuclear issue that can be an important solution to mending the relations between two countries.
Shargh: What is the U.S. view on the diplomatic approach of the new president?

Alan Eyre: Both the president and Secretary of State strongly believe that there is an opportunity for diplomacy and we hope that the Iranian government uses it. We welcome the change in tone, but as always we say there is a big difference between words and action.
            Among the other signs:
            A new CNN/ORC International survey showed that three-quarters of Americans polled support diplomacy with Iran to solve the longstanding dispute over its controversial nuclear program. Only about 20 percent opposed negotiations.
The poll found that 87 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans surveyed supported talks with the Islamic Republic. The next round of negotiations between Iran and the world’s major powers is due to begin on October 15-16 in Geneva.
            "Large majorities in all major demographic categories favor negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program, including 87% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans. This is nothing new for the U.S. public — in 2009, virtually the same number of Americans said they favored negotiations with Iran," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
            The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
      The reaction to the first conversation between the Iranian and American presidents in more than three decades also got public endorsement from important sectors of the Iranian government “The world’s respect for our president is a result of our nation’s resistance,” said Qassem Soleimani (left), commander of the Qods Force, a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, in an interview with Fars News Agency on September 28, one day after the telephone call between the two leaders.
            The head of the Iranian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee also backed the first contact. “Obama and Rouhani’s telephone conversation shows Iran’s power. When the U.S. president wants to talk with our president, it demonstrates that Iran’s position in the world is important,” said Alaeddin Boroujerdi told reporters in Tehran. Boroujerdi is considered a hardliner.
            Former speaker of parliament Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a hardliner who ran against Rouhani in the June election, said the telephone call with Obama “can create an atmosphere for Iran to become more active in the international arena.”
            Not everyone was supportive, however, Revolutionary Guards chief Mohammad Ali Jafari said that Rouhani should have refused to take a call from his American counterpart. But just as he refused to meet Obama, he should also have refused to speak with him on the telephone and should have waited for concrete action by the United States," Jafari told the Tasnimnews.com website.
            The Guards chief also issued a thinly veiled warning to Rouhani that the damage could be “repaired.” He told the news agency, "If we see errors being made by officials, the revolutionary forces will issue the necessary warnings.”

            The Guards, charged with protecting the revolution, appear to be taking a harder line than the political elite. Gen. Amir-Ali Hadjizadeh, who heads the Revolutionary guards air corps, said, "US hostility can't be forgotten with a phone call and a smile."
            In the latest of his many English-language tweets, President Hassan Rouhani announced yet another potential new connection with the United States: Direct flights between Tehran and New York. The first tweet was by @MeetIran, which may be a public diplomacy outreach site. It was launched just before Rouhani’s visit to New York. The item was almost immediately retweeted by the president’s semi-official Twitter account.
            The State Department turned to Twitter too to announce what was effectively a farewell gift for President Rouhani on September 27, the day of his departure from New York. The United States returned a 2,700-year-old silver chalice from ancient Persia. The ceremonial drinking vessel—known as a rhyton—is in the shape of a mythical beast, with a lion’s body and a bird’s head. It comes from the Achaemenid dynasty. It had been confiscated by U.S. customs and held for many years.
            “We are taking this as America’s souvenir to the Iranian people,” Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Najafi told CNN. “I adamantly believe in cultural diplomacy, and I believe the thing that could improve relations between the U.S. and Iran after the years and softens the harshness of his relationship is cultural diplomacy.” Najafi, who is one of several vice presidents, is also head of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization.
            On the same day that Rouhani and Obama spoke, the World Bank announced that Iran had resumed payment on old loans. Tehran had not made any repayments during 2013. In July, it blamed Western sanctions for complicating its ability to transfer funds through an intermediary. Iran’s loans, which all predate 2005, now total $616 million. Neither Iran nor the World Bank have provided any further details about why payments were halted or why they have now resumed. But the timing was striking.
Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran" and "The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy." She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Rouhani Briefs Iranians on US Visit

            On September 29, President Hassan Rouhani briefed Iranians on his visit to the United Nations and his phone conversation with President Barack Obama. Rouhani told Obama that the “Iranian people have opened a window of opportunity, but that there is not much time for” resolving the dispute over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. Obama said that he acknowledges the nuclear rights of the Iranian nation and is committed to accelerating diplomacy. The following video, with English subtitles, was posted by Meet Iran.


US and Israel Discuss New Iran Diplomacy

            President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Iran and the new U.S.-Iran diplomacy at the White House on September 30. The following are the relevant excerpts of their remarks on Iran.

President Barack Obama
             We had an opportunity, obviously, to discuss Iran.  Both the Prime Minister and I agree, since I came into office, that it is imperative that Iran not possess a nuclear weapon.  That is important for American security; it is important for Israeli security; it’s important for world security, because we do not want to trigger a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world.  And given the statements and actions from the Iranian regime in the past -- the threats against Israel, the acts against Israel -- it is absolutely clear that words are not sufficient, that we have to have actions that give the international community confidence that, in fact, they are meeting their international obligations fully, and that they are not in a position to have a nuclear weapon.
            What I also shared with the Prime Minister is that, because of the extraordinary sanctions that we have been able to put in place over the last several years, the Iranians are now prepared, it appears, to negotiate.  We have to test diplomacy.  We have to see if, in fact, they are serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law and international requirements and resolutions.  And we in good faith will approach them, indicating that it is our preference to resolve these issues diplomatically.
            But we enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed.  They will not be easy.  And anything that we do will require the highest standards of verification in order for us to provide the sort of sanctions relief that I think they are looking for.
            So we will be in close consultation with Israel and our other friends and allies in the region during this process, and our hope is that we can resolve this diplomatically.  But as President of the United States, I've said before and I will repeat that we take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran that would destabilize the region and potentially threaten the United States of America.
            In all of this, our unshakeable bond with the Israeli people is stronger than ever.  Our commitment to Israel's security is stronger than ever.  And we are very much looking forward to continuing to work with our friends in Israel to make sure that the U.S. security interests are met, Israel's security interests are met, but hopefully that we can also bring about greater peace and greater stability in a region that has been racked with violence and tensions for far too long. 
            And I appreciate the Prime Minister's views.  He is always candid, and we’re always able to have not only a good working relationship at the prime ministerial level, but also because of the outstanding work that our staffs do.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
            I welcome the opportunity that we're having to discuss how we work closely together to address the enormous challenges that face both of us.  And I think of those, the most important challenge is preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
            I appreciate deeply the fact that you have made clear that you remain committed to this goal.  I also appreciate the statement you made that Iran's conciliatory words have to be matched by real actions -- transparent, verifiable, meaningful actions. 
            Iran is committed to Israel's destruction.  So for Israel, the ultimate test of a future agreement with Iran is whether or not Iran dismantles its military nuclear program.  We have a saying in Hebrew, we call it mivchan hatotza’a -- you would say it in English, what's the bottom line?  And the bottom line, again, is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program. 
            In this regard, I want to express my appreciation to you for the enormous work that’s been done to have a sanctions regime in place to thwart Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.  I believe that it's the combination of a credible military threat and the pressure of those sanctions that has brought Iran to the negotiating table.
            I also believe that if diplomacy is to work, those pressures must be kept in place.  And I think that they should not be lessened until there is verifiable success.  And, in fact, it is Israel’s firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened.  It’s the combination, I believe, that has guided your policy and our policy so far, that is good credible military threat and strong sanctions I think is still the only formula that can get a peaceful resolution of this problem.

Obama’s Historic Call with Rouhani

            On September 27, President Barack Obama revealed that he had a phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program,” Obama said at a White House briefing. The exchange was the first direct communication between an American and Iranian president since the 1979 revolution.

      Resolving the dispute over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program could “serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Obama said. The two presidents spoke while Rouhani was in a car on his way to the airport. Obama communicated his deep respect for the Iranian people and emphasized the “unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran.” He also apologized for the horrendous New York traffic and wished Rouhani a safe journey home.
      President Rouhani told his counterpart that they can “rapidly solve” the nuclear dispute with sufficient political will. “We’re hopeful about what we will see from the P5+1 [six major world powers] and your government, particularly in the coming weeks and months,” he said. “Have a good day Mr. President,” Rouhani said. Obama wished him well in Farsi.
            Rouhani’s office immediately tweeted excerpts from the conversation and posted a summary on the president’s website. The following are tweets from @HassanRouhani followed by Obama’s remarks and Iran’s summary of the conversation.

President Barack Obama
            Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.  I reiterated to President Rouhani what I said in New York -- while there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward, and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.
            I’ve directed Secretary Kerry to continue pursuing this diplomatic effort with the Iranian government.  We had constructive discussions yesterday in New York with our partners -- the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China -- together with the Iranian Foreign Minister.  Going forward, President Rouhani and I have directed our teams to continue working expeditiously, in cooperation with the P5-plus-1, to pursue an agreement.  And throughout this process, we’ll stay in close touch with our friends and allies in the region, including Israel.
            We’re mindful of all the challenges ahead.  The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and Iranian President since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.
            I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution.  Iran’s Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.  President Rouhani has indicated that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.  I have made clear that we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations.  So the test will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place.
            Resolving this issue, obviously, could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran -- one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.  It would also help facilitate a better relationship between Iran and the international community, as well as others in the region -- one that would help the Iranian people fulfill their extraordinary potential, but also help us to address other concerns that could bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East.
            A path to a meaningful agreement will be difficult, and at this point, both sides have significant concerns that will have to be overcome.  But I believe we’ve got a responsibility to pursue diplomacy, and that we have a unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran.  I also communicated to President Rouhani my deep respect for the Iranian people.
            As I said before, this comes on the same day that we can accomplish a major diplomatic breakthrough on Syria, as the United Nations Security Council will vote on a resolution that would require the Assad regime to put its chemical weapons under international control so they can ultimately be destroyed.  This binding resolution will ensure that the Assad regime must keep its commitments, or face consequences.  We’ll have to be vigilant about following through, but this could be a significant victory for the international community, and demonstrate how strong diplomacy can allow us to secure our country and pursue a better world. 
President Hassan Rouhani’s Official Website

Zarif Diary on US-Iran Breakthrough

      In an all-time first for Iranian diplomacy, new Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has been chronicling his visit to New York on his Facebook page for Iranians back home. On September 26, Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif held their first meeting on the sideline of talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers. Zarif later wrote about the encounter and the rest of his day.

The following is a translation by USIP's Maral Noori.

September 27

Hello Friends,
            It is 5:14 a.m. on Friday. Have you heard yesterday’s news? It was a busy and productive day for the president and me. But I want to begin my report with the sweetest parts of the yesterday’s program. The president met with over a thousand Iranians who had come from all corners of America. I must ask for forgiveness from all of the friends who came but could not enter due to lack of space. Of course, I only heard about this at the end of the session.
             Professor Mahdavi Damghani gave a speech that was so full of grace. Children sang songs. The president gave a great, epic speech that highlighted the leading role of the Iranian people, both inside and outside the country, [in building a] better Iran today and tomorrow. [The speech also marked] the memorial week for the brave soldiers of the holy defense [the 1980-1988 war with Iraq]. The speech came together so beautifully.
            The president wanted from the people, as Hafiz [ a famous 14th-century poet] said, to “be faithful, endure the blame, and rejoice. Because on our path, to despair is sacrilege.”
            People applauded dozens of times. And the entire room stood and applauded several times. Their eyes were full of tears. The people were so magnanimous that instead of eating dinner, I spent two hours among the guests on behalf of the president. My fatigue from all of yesterday’s work went away. I do not know if this program was broadcast live on television or not, but I hope it was aired so that you can share in all the joy that my staff and I had.

      Other programs from yesterday included the president’s speech to American intellectuals and political elites. I only attended the end of the session due to the P5+1 negotiations [with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States]. But apparently it was broadcast live on the news. The meeting was very good and constructive. Like previous days, the president and I had numerous bilateral talks.

            Before the P5 +1 negotiations, I convened a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement Palestine committee as chairman. Due to the P5+1 talks, I only stayed for half an hour of the session. I gave my permission to Iran’s permanent representative to continue the meeting.
            The P5 +1 meeting was a good start. Now we must patiently [walk] the steep and difficult path to the outcome of the next discussions. One day, I hope to report everything I said during these sessions to you all so you see that there is no need to depart from the direct course [Iran’s principles] to have good negotiations. I spoke with explicit emphasis and without compliments on the illegality of Iran’s nuclear case [being sent] to the U.N. Security Council, and the resulting unlawful and useless unilateral sanctions. Then I had to show flexibility and talk more about the future and the way towards a solution without abandoning these positions. Later, I explained Iran’s strategic perspective, its goal to prove its nuclear program is peaceful and why they [world powers] should aim to ensure that Iran’s [uranium] enrichment program is for peaceful purposes and accept IAEA [U.N. watchdog] monitoring. In the end, the solution was raised. All the ministers welcomed your humble servant’s speech and committed to achieving the same goal. Intensive negotiations have been planned for the end of October.
            We had separate bilateral meetings with all of the P5+1 ministers in previous days, except for Mr. [John] Kerry. At the end of the session, we all shook hands and said goodbye. I then spoke to Mr. Kerry for about thirty minutes on the sidelines. He emphasized the U.S. president’s commitment to reach a negotiated solution based on mutual respect. His words during the P5+1 session and in an interview afterwards were positive. Other ministers were also positive and hopeful for the future.
            However, my dear friends, the work has just begun. We have a long road ahead of us. We must embark on it with hard work and effort. We must focus on solutions based on peoples’ rights, interests and welfare and avoid wasteful advertising. [The negotiations] will be as short as possible, but let us not forget, however, to have patience and prudence.
            I know that I have your blessings and always need them.
            Today I must administer the annual meeting of Non-Aligned Movement foreign ministers. The president will give a speech as the movement’s chairman at the beginning of this session and then head to dear Islamic Iran. I cannot send him off because I must run the session until the evening.
            I hope to meet again — God bless you all and dear Iran.



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