America and Iran have challenges yet to come

History was apparently made when Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, received a phone call from Barack Obama at the United Nations assembly last month. It marked the first time in 27 years that senior leaders of each government had talked directly, and – besides exchanging the usual sycophantic pleasantries – they reportedly discussed their mutual desire to rapidly resolve the ‘nuclear issue’ that has divided them for so long.

obama on the phone

Some quickly lauded this as the first sign of an American/Iranian rapprochement, however, to those well versed in the history of these two states it is clear that there remain some major challenges before cordial relations can really be back on the table. Fundamentally, any agreement with Iran must include substantial (or total) relaxation of the sanctions enacted by the US and the European Union. Secondly, Iran will not accept any offer that forfeits its indisputable right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology. While there has been some suggestion of eventual reductions in sanctions, in many sectors of the US policy machine Iran’s retention of nuclear technology is unthinkable. Indeed, these hardliners follow a path laid by Israeli president, Benjamin Netanyahu—a keen advocate of pre-emptive strikes and regime change in Tehran.

This is not to say there are not hardliners on the Iranian side. Rouhani’s car was pelted with eggs and shoes by protestors incensed that he would entertain talks with “the Great Satan”, America. Indeed, chants of “death to America” are not uncommon, but it must be remembered that Iran’s people suffer terribly by the international sanctions – just as Iraq’s people before them. They have led to great deficits in medicine and standard of living, and this serves only to further embitter the populace.

To those who ask why Iran won’t just roll over and die, the answer is clear. Imagining for a moment that such hawkish ambitions did not exist among the higher echelons of the US government, Iranians have already had two clear examples of states that surrendered their nuclear programmes: Iraq and Libya. They too have a partner in nuclear ambition – one far more dangerous than Iraq ever was – whose regime nonetheless lives and breathes today: North Korea. Of Iraq and Libya’s leaders, the first was hanged in a military base and the second shot in a ditch. Neither would have perished without American backing, and the possession of a nuclear arsenal (or at least the capability to develop one) has proven to be the only dependable guarantee against such transgressions.

Whether progress in their relationship can be made will be almost entirely determined by the flexibility of Obama’s diplomacy. Intransigence will only beget frustration and escalation; America would be wise to avoid yet another conflict in the Middle East.


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January 2022
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