Another Oped Overture From Iran

Many surely saw the opinion piece by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in last Friday’s Washington Post. Not to be outdone by his successor, former president Mohammad Khatami published an article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, entitled “This time, the West must not turn its back on diplomacy.” Khatami describes this as “an unrivalled and possibly unrepeatable opportunity for Iran, the west and all local and regional powers” to resolve their differences.

The sudden chattiness of Iranian leaders underscores that the regime is leaving no stone unturned in its effort to persuade the international community that Iran is prepared to make meaningful changes in its approach to the world. (What’s next, Rafsanjani in Le Monde?) As I wrote late last week, the intensity of this public relations campaign reinforces its authority; on the rare occasions when Tehran has reversed course in the past, the shifts have been accompanied by similarly energetic public engagement. (By the same token, it offers some justification for the U.S. skepticism toward previous unofficial overtures, such as the 2003 “grand bargain” offer penned by the Swiss ambassador in Iran with the help of Iranian diplomats — which benefitted from no such charm offensive.)

Still, irrespective of what happens between American and Iranian officials over then next few days in New York, Khatami’s oped should be read carefully, as it offers valuable insight into the perceptions of the Iranian leadership. First, all those Rouhani skeptics out there should pay close attention to the distinctions that Khatami’s oped drew between his own experience in promoting a ‘dialogue of civilizations’ and the current situation; he directly directly tackled the invidious comparison by noting that “(e)xplicit public support from the supreme leader of the Islamic republic provides Rouhani and his colleagues with the necessary authority for a diplomatic resolution of a number of foreign policy issues with the west, not just the nuclear issue.” A reader hardly needs reminding that Khatami’s efforts to promote détente during his two terms in office (1997-2005) did not benefit from such support. Khatami also emphasized that Rouhani’s election represents a “national consensus above and beyond partisan factionalism,” in contrast to his own two terms in office, when his efforts were undercut by opposition from Iranian hard-liners.

At the same time, however, Khatami’s oped reveals an enduring bitterness toward Washington that the opportunity presented by his own presidency “was missed,” as he explains, because of the decisions undertaken by Washington in the aftermath of 9/11 to launch military campaigns in Afghanistan and later Iraq. “It is no surprise that, in this political atmosphere, diplomacy with Iran ended in failure,” Khatami laments.

There is surely a great deal of truth in this assessment, but it is just as surely incomplete and, frankly, unfair. There is no question that the Bush Administration failed to take advantage of opportunities to capitalize on talks with Iran that began after 9/11. However, this failure was borne not solely of ideological blinders, but also of the frustrations of their predecessors in gaining any traction with a divided Iranian regime and a reform movement that was, at the time, declining in influence. The Clinton Administration tried on several occasions to establish a diplomatic dialogue with Khatami’s government, including (but not limited to) a series of public overtures and sanctions relaxation. None of these were reciprocated by Tehran, precisely because the regime itself was at odds and the Supreme Leader was not then willing to countenance the kind of historic diplomatic outreach that he appears to have endorsed today.

For that reason, it’s disingenuous to lay the blame for past US-Iranian diplomatic misfires solely at the feet of President George W. Bush. In reality, Khatami’s efforts to promote rapprochement with the West did not fail because of the Bush Administration’s disastrous Iraq policy; rather, they failed because Khamenei saw domestic reform and détente with the West as dangerous and even subversive, and he encouraged, or at least permitted, the very “partisan factionalism” that Khatami himself acknowledges. Bush Administration bungling played a late-game supporting role.

One final point from Khatami’s oped that should be noted: there is a warning implicit in his words, one that Rouhani and other Iranian officials have imparted in their own statements and overtures. Iran’s current charm offensive has an expiration date. As Khatami cautions, “(f)ailure now to create an atmosphere of trust and meaningful dialogue will only boost extremist forces on all sides,” and the current outreach may be an “unrepeatable” opportunity.

The emphasis from multiple fronts on the need for rapid progress suggests that Rouhani’s running room may be expansive but it is not indefinite, and the support from the Supreme Leader for testing the waters of diplomacy with the West will likely abate if positive outcomes are not forthcoming. This is precisely the sort of dynamic that Rouhani himself experienced during his own time leading the nuclear talks a decade ago, and wrote about in his memoirs of the time.

Iran’s sudden rush for results is not a bad thing; in fact, traditionally, it has been Washington’s worries about Tehran’s tendencies to spin out negotiations indefinitely that has provided some impetus to the timeline. Now, it seems that both sides see an incentive in moving quickly toward some kind of substantive agreement. That only amplifies the pressure surrounding a week of possibilities at the United Nations General Assembly. Stay tuned!