This article was first published in the Journal of Turkish Weekly.
JTW, Tibor Hargitai
On November 8th Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his strong dissatisfaction with the rumored details of the deal expected to emerge from the E3/EU+3 (P5+1) meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister and Chief Nuclear Negotiator Javad Zarif in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program: “I understand that the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva. They are paying nothing because they are not reducing in any way their nuclear enrichment capability. So Iran got the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal. This is a very bad deal, and Israel utterly rejects it.” While it seemed that Netanyahu was speaking of a done deal, the negotiations ended without anything conclusive being put on the table, and the meetings are set to continue on 20 November, 2013.Israel has been experiencing an awkward shift in regional political dynamics. It has been in the interest of Israeli politicians to depict Iran as enemy number one, and for good reason: the 2005-2013 presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave little comfort to Israel and its sense of security. One could even argue that this is how, in part, the Likud party in Israel wins broad electoral support. Of course, domestic considerations like the state of the economy, play a very significant role during Israeli elections. However, in times of economic stagnation, shifting the public’s attention away from the economy towards protecting Israeli interests and sovereignty from external actors, has the power to throw elections.
Netanyahu’s reaction during the talks on Iran’s nuclear program this weekend reflects this. “Israel is not obliged by this agreement, and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and to defend the security of its people.” Netanyahu masters the skills of rhetoric well. He inspires fear, but also manages to show that he is the right man for the job of protecting Israel.
After the election of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran last June 2013, it seems that the Iranians, the European Union, and the United States are taking diplomatic steps aimed at easing the current tensions.
President Rouhani has been widely perceived to be a “moderate”. On 18 September he publicly expressed the need for restraint on behalf of the police when it comes to enforcing Islamic covering. Also, shortly before his trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly session in September, Rouhani wrote an article in the Washington Post where he called for “constructive engagement” within the international community: “In a world where global politics is no longer a zero-sum game, it is — or should be — counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others. A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives.” On 11 November 2013, he re-emphasized on Twitter that Iran’s position regarding constructive engagement still holds, also after the suspension of talks in Geneva.
His domestic and foreign policies bear strategic considerations. The Iranian government and Ayatollah Khamenei recognize the importance of economic relief, as the last round of economic sanctions have taken their toll on Iran’s economy.
However, we should not be too optimistic. This is not a new Iran. In the 1960s, Hassan Rouhani, as a young cleric, was actively engaged in the Islamic movement in Iran. It is also relevant to note that Rouhani was one of only a few candidates who were allowed to run for the presidency of Iran earlier this year. The Guardian Council carefully picks those who may run for elections on the basis of their allegiance to the principles of the Islamic Republic. According to Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times, “[Iranian] analysts say that Mr. Rowhani’s first priority will be mediating the disturbed relationship between [the] leadership and Iran’s citizens, not carrying out major change.”
Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency signed a joint statement on 11 November 2013, aimed at strengthening cooperation and ensuring the peaceful intent of the nuclear program of Iran. As such, a cautious hope for a normalization of relations between Iran and the United States and the European Union – as the chief negotiators – is not misplaced.
Iran’s political elite is divided between hardliners and the moderates. The hardliners continue to harp on anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, believing that the “enemy” cannot be trusted. “It’s harmful to underestimate the enemy because they do nothing but play tricks”, said Ayatollah Ali Movahedi Kermani, leader of Tehran’s Friday prayers. The moderates, on the other hand, seek a move away from the confrontational tone, and aim to bring economic relief to Iran, of which the nuclear negotiations are an important part. Ayatollah Khamenei is supporting of these moderates, headed by President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, calling the negotiators of the nuclear talks “children of the Revolution”.
Netanyahu sees no strategic interest in any deal with Iran, while Rouhani, Zarif, and Ayatollah Khamenei are pushing hard – partly out of economic necessity – to reach an agreement. In any case, the regional dynamics in the Middle East are changing and the Iranian leadership seem to be keen to capitalize on it through diplomacy.
13 November 2013Journal of Turkish Weekly