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Tehran Turns On The Charm Offensive, On Steroids

On the eve of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s arrival for his first visit to the United States, Tehran has unleashed a full court press of unprecedented substance and proportion, aimed boldly at promoting direct engagement between Washington and Tehran on a comprehensive range of issues. The goodwill campaign that began in the context of Iran’s presidential race in June has since morphed into an official onslaught of overtures toward Washington, paralleled by the empowerment of officials who appear determined to decisively shift Iran’s approach to the world.

The campaign culminated, at least for the moment, in an extraordinary opinion piece by Rouhani published today in The Washington Post. His advocacy of “constructive dialogue” on the nuclear standoff as well as a range of regional issues, and his appeal for Washington and Tehran to “work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart” amplified the already breathless speculation that his imminent visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting might spawn a historic opening between the two old adversaries.

With this oped, Rouhani’s UNGA visit has taken on heightened significance, far beyond what initially appeared to be his mission: simply differentiating himself from his notorious predecessor and beginning a slow process of unshackling Iran from the sanctions and creeping pariah status that its leadership had previously seemed to deliberately cultivate. Instead, Tehran appears to be aiming at such much more ambitious, and much more uncertain, objective: dangling the prospect of a wide-ranging rapprochement between the Great Satan and the revolutionary theocracy.

The oped and Iran’s other recent overtures, such as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s social media blitz, have provoked widespread curiosity and some skepticism, both sentiments that are wholly justified by Iran’s history. The first question I hear from journalists and colleagues alike is simply: is this real? And secondarily, can Rouhani — who of course is not Iran’s final decision maker — undertake such a dramatic shift without running into the same opposition that undercut prior presidents, particularly those who sought in much less dramatic fashion to heal Iran’s estrangement with Washington.

I think there can be no doubt that this is real, and that it is qualitatively different — and more significant – than any prior outreach from Iran. I was convinced on the night of Rouhani’s election that Tehran had decided it was time for a nuclear deal, and everything that has transpired since then has only strengthened that conviction. His rhetoric, his appointments of Zarif (both to head the Foreign Ministry and to take responsibility for the nuclear negotiations) as well as former defense minister Ali Shamkhani as national security advisor, the improvements in the domestic atmosphere and other gestures such as the release of nearly a dozen prominent political prisoners earlier this week — all of these steps confirm my confidence that Rouhani is intended to serve as the instrument for staunching the economic costs of Iran’s nuclear standoff and beginning a broader rehabilitation of the regime.

In this effort, nothing that Rouhani has done would have been possible without the conscious consent of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Supreme Leader has veto power over all policy decisions, and is particularly protective of sensitive appointments. Surely he understood the implications of situating Zarif — who has met half of the Obama Administration’s cabinet in the past and has lived nearly as long in the United States as in Iran — in the Foreign Ministry and award him direct authority over the regime’s most urgent international crisis.

And in case any of subtleties of Rouhani’s very plainspoken Washington Post oped were overlooked, Khamenei threw his own voice into the mix. In a speech to the Revolutionary Guard Corps leadership earlier this week, the Supreme Leader highlighted his support for “heroic flexibility.” Thanks in part to the swift dissemination of the English translation via a semi-official Twitter account associated with Khamenei, the phrase quickly went viral — a first for the rather dour cleric. This statement sparked an intense debate among Iranian hardliners about his precise meaning and confirmed for much of the world that Rouhani’s engagement efforts were not an off-the reservation initiative.

Now, only a few months ago, it might have been unimaginable to even contemplate the concept of flexibility in the same sentence as Khamenei (much less Twitter.) But today, it seems hard to deny that we are witnessing a historic moment here – a moment in which the tensions built up as a result of a variety of forces have brought Iran to an epic decision point. As Amir Mohebbian, a hardline heavyweight in Iran, told the New York Times, Khamenei has decided that “this is the moment to try and solve this problem.”

The scope and intensity of Tehran’s charm offensive also underscores a point I’ve made previously, which is that when and if the Iranian leadership comes to the conclusion that a nuclear deal is both necessary and desirable, there will be no mistaking it. In our recently released Brookings Essay on Iran, I’ve highlighted the precedent of the 1988 decision to elevate then-speaker of the parliament Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to commander-in-chief with implicit orders to end the war with Iraq, as a parallel to the Rouhani election. That episode, which was until now the most significant previous shift in Iran’s security policy since the revolution, was overt and unambiguous, much as the diplomatic outreach we are witnessing today has been.

Once Ayatollah Khomeini had decided to ‘drink the poison chalice’ — as he described the act of accepting a cease fire with Saddam Hussein — he dispatched his foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, to Geneva. When the talks stalled — in part thanks to obstructionism from a Reagan administration that hoped to see Iran further bled by the conflict — Velayati reportedly told his interlocutors that he could not go home without a deal. What we’ve seen over the course of the past few weeks is the latter-day equivalent of Velayati’s August 1988 marching orders: the Rouhani presidency is determined to secure some kind of deal.

The other question much on the minds of Washingtonians who are watching the Iranian charm offensive is why now? Why, after three and a half decades of determined obstructionism and only four years after the most brutal repression of his own people in recent memory, has Khamenei opted to undertaken this highly unsubtle effort to ease tensions with the West? Ultimately, this will be a question for historians to answer with greater certainty, but it seems that economic sanctions have played a significant role.

As Mohebbian told the NYT, “we particularly want to be readmitted to the SWIFT system,” the electronic transactions service that barred contact with the Iranian financial system not long after Washington sanctioned Iran’s central bank. These SWIFT ban, and related measures enacted by the U.S. Congress, have not only halved Iran’s oil exports, they have effectively barred the repatriation of any monetary payments for the country’s primary source of revenue and foreign exchange. The trickle-down effect has been devastating, and while Iran has managed to find a thousand different ways to mitigate and evade the sanctions’ impact, it is clear that the core of the regime saw the costs of the standoff as excessive and even unsustainable.

There is more than just sanctions at play, of course. No one should underestimate the impact that Ahmadinejad’s acrimonious brand of political warfare on the sense of equanimity of the Iranian domestic landscape — as Rouhani put it in a speech earlier this week, Iranians “have always been battered by excessiveness” — or the tremors instigated by the scenes of upheaval and unprecedented fluidity in the regional political environment. The decision to seek some kind of truce on the nuclear standoff, and perhaps beyond, reflects a savvy appreciation by a leadership of political survivors that the revolution’s longevity is better served by a reduction in its frictions with Washington and the world.

The final question I’ve heard over the past few days is, okay, if this is for real, how do we respond? Here I think it would be useful to puncture some of the irrational exuberance around the Iranian overtures. Yes, Iran is willing to talk, about a range of issues, and has clearly signaled that the entire relevant body of decision-makers is aligned (although perhaps uneasily) around this position. But there are still enormous differences between the two sides, and if you deconstruct the speeches made this week by both Rouhani and Khamenei to the IRGC leadership, they are reasonably consistent with the approach to the world that we have heard articulated in the past. In other words, even in this moment of kinder, gentler diplomacy, Iranian leaders remain convinced that Washington is the adversary, bent on sowing conflict throughout the Middle East in pursuit of its own rapacious interests and power-hungry aims.

For that reason, it is important to appreciate that we are still a long way off from anything that looks like rapprochement. By the same token, I am skeptical about the utility of an Obama-Rouhani meeting, as advocated by others. I would question whether the benefits of a personal interaction really outweigh the domestic political risks, particularly for Rouhani. A handshake with the Great Satan’s president would be reasonably popular on the streets, but I suspect many Iranian political figures — even beyond the hard-liners — would wonder what Rouhani had received in return for overcoming one of the most longstanding and fiercely guarded dimensions of the regime’s official dogma.

I think it is much more viable and productive to focus on contacts where they can be substantive, and where they can in fact facilitate a better understanding and some momentum at the negotiating table. In that sense, I’d be focused on trying to secure some quality time between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif; they have had prior contact during Zarif’s time in NYC, and they both have direct-line responsibility for the nuclear talks.

The problem with engagement was that we’ve never really had any with Iran — with the possible exception of the successful talks on Afghanistan in 2001-2003, led of course by Zarif and now Amb. James Dobbins, who happens to be serving as the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and might make a very useful interlocutor again today. This is the first real bilateral reciprocation between the leaderships, and we are still waiting to see if a constructive bilateral dialogue can be established and sustained. But the fact that both sides appear to be prepared to do so is unprecedented and suggests the prospects today are better than they ever were before.

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