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27 Mar 2015 00:00
Tough talks: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's hardline supreme leader, is sceptical of a breakthrough in the talks with the United States. (AFP)
Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani make an unlikely double act. But as negotiators from the United States and Iran race towards the March 31 finishing line for a nuclear deal, this odd couple’s destinies have become inextricably linked.
The long-running saga of Iran’s standoff with the West has become a tale of two presidents.
It is plain that Barack Obama is rooting for a positive result in Lausanne, Switzerland, next week when negotiators make a final attempt to reach a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s suspect nuclear programme.
Attempts by opponents to thwart him, at home and abroad, only seem to have increased the president’s determination.
Although the idea is publicly played down for pragmatic reasons, Obama senses a rare strategic opportunity – a sort of grand bargain – that could eventually transform American and Western fortunes, and increase US leverage in the Middle East after more than a decade of foreign policy disasters and setbacks in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Libya.
Tackling shared challenges
In this White House view, mutually beneficial co-operation in tackling shared challenges, such as the spread of Sunni extremism, the rise of the Islamic State’s terrorism and Syria’s civil war, would be a natural progression following a nuclear deal. To this end, Obama has already been in direct contact with Iran’s leadership.
A historic agreement with Iran would be the centrepiece of what Obama hopes will be an impressive presidential legacy, as he approaches the end of his second, final term in office. Critics say he needs it for he has not much else to show for nearly eight years at the helm.
Obama’s televised Nowruz address to mark the Iranian new year last week was aimed specifically at the Iranian public and included greetings in the Farsi language. His ambition was evident and his appearance and delivery, although slightly uncomfortable, seemed genuine enough.
“My message to you – the people of Iran – is that, together, we have to speak up for the future we seek. This year, we have the best opportunity in decades to pursue a different future between our countries,” Obama said.
“The days and weeks ahead will be critical. Our negotiations have made progress, but gaps remain. And there are people, in both our countries and beyond, who oppose a diplomatic resolution.” Demonstrating just how difficult it will be to build trust, this last, seemingly innocuous statement drew a rebuke from Iran’s ever-sceptical, anti-Western supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. No one in Iran opposed a diplomatic solution, he claimed on Saturday. What they opposed was American bullying.
Pointing to divisions in Washington over a deal’s terms, Khamenei said Obama’s Nowruz message “included dishonest assertions ... his claim of friendship for Iranians was not sincere”. Obama’s promises on lifting sanctions were not to be believed, he suggested.
Hardliners opposed to détente on ideological and security grounds are a problem both presidents share. Khamenei’s scepticism and the rejectionists’ case has been strengthened, for example, by the unauthorised letter recently sent to the Tehran leadership by 47 US Republican senators. They warned they would try to exercise a de facto veto over any deal Obama might sign.
Khamenei aside, Rouhani is under constant pressure from powerful Shia fundamentalists, political conservatives and their allies in the media, who represent entrenched clerical, military and mercantile interests.
These groups accuse Rouhani, implicitly or otherwise, of selling out to the West. They deplore his centrist, reformist political stance as dangerously radical, although in truth Rouhani, like Obama, is very much an establishment figure. And although Obama is on his way out, Rouhani’s foes will do all they can to prevent the Iranian president winning a second term in 2017, should he choose to stand for re-election.
Prominent among such hostile forces is the Revolutionary Guard and its elite al-Quds force, led by the increasingly influential General Qassem Suleimani. He is lionised in Iran for advancing the country’s interests in Lebanon and Iraq, where he recently oversaw the battle with the Islamic State around Tikrit. There is talk that Suleimani may seek the presidency as the conservatives’ standard-bearer.
Ironically, leading players in Iran, such as Khamenei, Suleimani and the veteran cleric and Friday prayer-leader Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, now find themselves in a de facto alliance with American neo-cons and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, who publicly conspired with Obama’s Republican opponents this month to trash a “bad deal”.
Likewise, Obama and Rouhani are both under fire from Saudi Arabia and the conservative Gulf monarchies: Rouhani because, for historical reasons, Saudi Arabia opposes anything that advances Iran’s interests; Obama because the Saudis believe he is naive and that Iran would renege on any deal, sparking a Middle East nuclear arms race.
Most of all, however, Iran’s conservatives fear Rouhani because success in Lausanne next week could break the sanctions chokehold on Iran’s oil exports, financial services and foreign investment. Iran officially denies it, but Guardian interviews conducted in Tehran last year showed how hard sanctions are hurting the person in the street.
An agreement that improved ordinary Iranians’ economic fortunes by restoring normal trading ties and progressively opening the country to greater contact and exchanges with Europe and the US would be a triumph for Iran’s president. A deal could transform Rouhani’s so-far lacklustre presidency, giving it historic importance. It could do the same for Obama. And they both know it. – © Guardian News & Media 2015
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