Washington and Tehran: Adversaries beyond Syria

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 19 Sep 2013

The Syria crisis has opened channels of communication between the United States and Iran, Syria's key regional ally, but this does not mean that Tehran is ready to compromise its nuclear ambitions

Obama, Rowhani
Iran's President Hassan Rowhani (L) and US President Barack Obama (R) (Photo: Reuters)

The recently-revealed connections between the United States and Iran reflect the willingness of the Islamic republic to embrace a more flexible diplomacy under the new presidency of Hassan Rouhani compared to a mor hardline approach followed for years under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It is no secret that Iran enjoys political weight when it comes to Syria, which explains the rationale beyond such connections, not publicly practiced in the past.  

Evidence was the recent statement of the former spokesperson of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, Hossein Mousavian, who revealed that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “has already given his blessing” to the likelihood of direct talks with Washington on Syria, as well as the unresolved nuclear problem.

An Iranian source, close to Tehran’s diplomatic spheres, told Ahram Online in a phone conversation that links were opened one month ago when Jeffrey Feltman, UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his aide, Hussein Abdel Al-Lihan.

Following this meeting, the source added that Aladdin Brojerdi, the chairman of the National Security Committee of Iran's Islamic Shura Council, met top Syrian officials in the Syrian capital Damascus.

These visits, according to the source were completed by Zarif’s “shuttle tours” between Tehran, Damascus and Moscow, so as to seek a solution for the chemical weapons crisis of the Syrian regime that rests now on a Russian-proposed initiative to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

“Iran is now confident that fears of a US military strike against Syria are totally gone,” the source said.

Nuclear debate

Iranian concern on the fate of the Syrian regime, its staunchest regional ally, does not mean ignoring the standoff with western governments over its own nuclear programme. The government is uncomfortable with US foreign policy towards the Islamic republic because of Israeli influence on its outcome, the same source said.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated Tuesday he would stress the need to halt Iran’s nuclear programme during a meeting of his Cabinet.

"In another week-and-a-half or so I will travel to the UN General Assembly. I will first meet with US President Barack Obama," a statement from Netanyahu's office quoted him as saying.

"I intend to focus on the issue of stopping Iran's nuclear programme," he said, laying out four steps that Iran must take: halting all uranium enrichment, removing all enriched uranium from its territory, closing its underground nuclear facility in Qom, and halting construction of a plutonium reactor."

"Only a combination of these four steps will constitute an actual stopping of the nuclear programme, and until all four of these measures are achieved, the pressure on Iran must be increased and not relaxed, and certainly not eased," Netanyahu added.

In a related development,  Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham condemned on Tuesday US President Barack Obama for keeping the military option open to oblige Iran to halt its nuclear endeavours.

"It is a source of regret that he still uses the language of threat after we told [the US administration] to replace it with one of respect," AFP quoted Afkham as saying.   

Afkham, in an earlier statement, said it was "unjustifiable" that the White House could "violate international rules and the UN Charter to cater to the interests of 'lobbies' by resorting to the military option."

"The Obama government must understand that the use of the language of threats against the Islamic Republic of Iran will not have the slightest effect on the determination of the government and the nation to defend their absolute nuclear rights, particularly on enriching uranium," she said.  

Afkham also denounced Obama’s comments that Tehran should not see his holding off on using force against Syria as a sign Washington would not strike Syria.

Inside Iran

The tough tone adopted by Afkham coincided with the abovementioned orientation of Khamenei that appears pro-rapprochement with the West in nature.

Fathi Al-Maraghi, professor of Iranian studies at Ain Shams University in Cairo, argued that what is currently happening within Iran’s foreign policy should not be seen as surprising.

“The electoral platform of Rouhani seemed to take the unruffled road, preferring to direct more attention to the deteriorating economy, more cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and to listen to the demands of Iranian citizens,” Al-Maraghi said.

Al-Maraghi, however, drew attention to the influence of Khamenei over Rouhani, as the latter won the backing of the supreme leader over the other presidential candidates.

“Iranians usually have a tendency to follow the supreme leader’s choice; Rouhani previously took a series of top-level government positions, a situation that preserves the essence of the Iranian political system that allowed the rise of reformists since the 2009 elections,” he asserted.  

Rouhani sought to restrain the political and economic influence of the hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards Corps, for he seeks direct talks with the United States, reaching a deal on the nuclear programme, and strengthening Iran’s weak economy.

The hardliner bloc of the highly-influential military institution opposes bids of rapprochement with the West and they enjoy extensive control in the Iranian government.

On Monday, Rouhani warned them to stay out of “political games” during a speech to Revolutionary Guard leadership in Tehran.

"The Guard is above factional politics, not alongside and within the political factions," The Australian newspaper quoted Rouhani as saying.

The president, moreover, transferred responsibility for Iran’s nuclear portfolio to foreign minister Zarif, who is widely known for his rejection of the Revolutionary Guard’s interference in the country’s foreign policy, instead of the National Security Council.

According to the Associated Press, Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said Monday that Iran’s former government was not committed to reaching an agreement with world powers on nuclear disagreements. Salehi reportedly added that the chances of progress were improved by the unity among Iran's new political leadership over what it sought in the next round of talks, and what it was prepared to give to world powers.

He did not go into detail, but Iran wants an end to economic and political sanctions it faces over fears it is progressing towards nuclear weapons capability. Tehran denies pursuing nuclear arms, saying its nuclear programme is energy-centred and peaceful.

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