On Friday September 27, 2013, 3:42 PM EST, President Barack Obama announced that he spoke with President Hassan Rouhani via telephone. This marks the first time Washington and Tehran directly communicated at such a high level since the 1979 revolution. And although this is a historic moment my reaction has been more of a cautious optimism because Rouhani speaking with Obama is like Secretary of State John Kerry speaking with the President of Russia or China, for example. In other words, Kerry may have a productive conversation but he reports back to Obama who then makes the final decision. This is also the case with Rouhani who reports back to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, and the final decision maker on Iran’s foreign policy (which includes the regime’s nuclear program), Ali Khamenei. To fully contextualize this, in a recent interview with CNN’s Chief International Correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, Rouhani affirmed the question that he has authorization from Khamenei to negotiate with the United States. This kind of question would not be asked to any other president in the free world, which shows that Rouhani’s ability to bring about change is limited to what his Supreme Leader allows him to do and say.
Moreover, when President Obama stated that “we have a unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran” there is a misrepresentation of who the leadership is. Rouhani should not be commended just yet for bringing Iran a little closer to normalcy with America. One thing that the 2009 Iranian presidential elections showed us was that the office of the presidency is at the disposal and mercy of the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council (a twelve man council with one responsibility in deciding who can run for president). The fact that Rouhani won the presidency has just as much to do with Khamenei and the Guardian Council allowing him to run as it did with his ability to successfully campaign and debate. Therefore, the question must not be what can Rouhani do to improve Iran’s relations with America as well as its standing with the world community but rather what will the ruling elites inside Iran allow him to do.
During Mohammad Khatami’s eight year tenure as Iran’s president there were similar signs of hope and optimism. During his first term, citizens of Iran saw some changes, leniency on dress codes, fewer crackdowns and arrests, as well as an exchange of cultures. However, during Khatami’s second term he was rarely seen and barely made significant changes. In fact many Iranians were upset at Khatami because the country’s economic problems did not improve. The source of this inability to make a difference stems from the power that Khamenei holds over not only the presidency but virtually the entire government. What can be learned from Khatami’s presidency is that although rhetoric points to positive signs it truly depends on who is making these statements. Ultimately, there will be no significant change in Iran’s nuclear program, as well as other foreign policies, unless Khamenei allows it – and this is irrespective of what Rouhani says or does. I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong but given what history has shown there is little reason to be optimistic or even hopeful from a fifteen minute phone conversation.
However, the reason for such a change in Tehran’s tone and rhetoric stems from the years of sanctions imposed on Iran which has truly hurt the country’s economy, and the domestic tension that has been lingering between the regime and its citizens since the summer of 2009. Therefore, the reminder of Khamenei’s fatwa against building a nuclear bomb, and the phone conversation between the two presidents, along with the change in tone and rhetoric, even the fact that Rouhani was allowed to run for president can all be seen as puzzle pieces being used to lessen the animosity, distress, and frustration of the Iranian people as well as attempt to reduce the pressure of sanctions. There are some skeptics who argue that Iran’s current shift is a tactic to buy themselves more time from the negotiating table in order to continue with its nuclear ambitions. This may be a possibility, however, with Khamenei allowing Rouhani to negotiate with Washington and with the Supreme Leader stating on September 17, 2013 that Iran should pursue “heroic leniency” with the West over its nuclear program suggests a willingness to negotiate differently than before which may bring about a resolution. But this is where the cautious optimism arises; Iran’s negotiating team will only go as far as Khamenei allows them.
Thus, although Rouhani’s phone conversation with Obama is historic we must not read into it more than what it really is, one positive step towards a long road to normalcy and hopefully a mutual agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the imposed sanctions, and other issues. What Washington should focus on is trying to leverage this new found relationship between the two presidents into actual meetings and conversations with higher ranking officials, rather than the nuclear negotiating teams. Starting with talks between John Kerry and Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, will uncover specific reservations and concerns that both parties have about the other and about the nuclear issue. One of the main reasons why a deal has not been made is due to the lack of understanding about the other and if too much time lapses before their next interaction it will be very difficult to build a positive relationship let alone successfully negotiate a nuclear deal.