The Cable

East Met West, Fell in Love, Hit the Skids

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came to U.N. headquarters for the opening of the General Assembly a year ago, it was the beginning of a grand love affair with the West. He wished the Jews of the world happy new year, took a historic phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama, and later inked an ...

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came to U.N. headquarters for the opening of the General Assembly a year ago, it was the beginning of a grand love affair with the West. He wished the Jews of the world happy new year, took a historic phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama, and later inked an interim nuclear deal with the Western capitals. Sanctions against Iran eased, and Iran’s wheezing economy breathed a sigh of relief. Western leaders began dreaming of a landmark rapprochement, a development that could redraw the fractious lines of Middle Eastern politics.

But Rouhani returned to the United Nations this week to find that the blush of the romance has faded. Neither side is getting what it wants from the relationship. Talks to resolve the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program are deadlocked, with negotiators at loggerheads over a number of issues, including how many centrifuges Iran can continue operating. The six countries negotiating with Iran — the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, and Germany — in July, when talks looked to be on life support, extended the deadline as hard-liners on both sides clamored that deal-makers were on the verge of signing away the crown jewels in exchange for promises worth less than the breath with which they were uttered.

Now at the United Nations, the sides are circling each other like jilted lovers. The foundation for their relationship is still intact: A deal with the West would deliver on Rouhani’s election promise to usher in a thaw and open Iran’s economy and settle the matter bedeviling Western efforts to transform Iran into a regional peacemaker. They also need one another: The failed 2009 Green Movement showed Tehran that its people are tired of the shadow warfare with Washington; America and its allies know they cannot oust Islamic State militants from Iraq and Syria without Iranian cooperation.

"A final accord regarding Iran’s peaceful nuclear program can serve as the beginning of multilateral collaboration aimed at promoting security, peace, and development in our region and beyond," Rouhani told the General Assembly on Thursday, Sept. 25.

Rouhani’s statement also revealed that Iranian assistance in dismantling the self-declared Islamic State is likely conditioned on inking a final nuclear deal. Senior Iranian officials leaked that diplomatic gambit earlier this week. (U.S. officials quickly batted down the idea.)

At a Wednesday appearance organized by the New America Foundation, Rouhani made his pitch: "Let’s first raise the baby we just gave birth to. Then let’s go on to No. 2," Rouhani said, using what he called a Farsi expression.

He also admitted that Iranian military advisors are on the "front lines" with Iraqi forces combating the Islamic State, leaving Western powers to wonder what more he could offer them in that regard. And deploying Shiite troops into Sunni territory would undermine the White House’s strategy of empowering moderate Sunnis to reclaim territory from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. "We want to keep Iran at arm’s length," said Gary Samore, Obama’s former chief advisor on weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, France would like Iran to have a more formal role in the anti-ISIS coalition. And in his General Assembly address, British Prime Minister David Cameron embraced Iran as a potential public partner. "Iran’s leaders could help in defeating the threat from ISIL. They could help secure a more stable, inclusive Iraq and a more stable and inclusive Syria," said Cameron, who on Wednesday became the first British leader to meet with his Iranian counterpart since the 1979 revolution that deposed the shah. "And if they are prepared to do this, then we should welcome their engagement."

Speaking at the New America Foundation event, Rouhani emphasized that negotiators, who have been meeting on the sidelines in New York, still have two months to wheel and deal before the Nov. 24 deadline. Rouhani said his election last year offers a historic opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted. "Pressure groups" in both Iran and the United States are trying to derail talks. These groups must be "confronted" and "led" by their respective governments, Rouhani said.

In New York, Rouhani has avoided following the lead of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose harsh criticism of the United States and its allies made him toxic in Western capitals. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said that Rouhani’s tone is "telling of the talks’ trajectory."

Samore, who is now president of the advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, said Rouhani’s optimism about finalizing a deal is "total bullshit." But even if he is bluffing, the regional chaos created by the Islamic State has created momentum for a nuclear deal — or at least has pushed both sides to keep trying, even if it means extending the deadline again. That process keeps Western sanctions at bay, something Iran’s economy desperately needs.

Iranians "cannot place trust in any security cooperation between their government with those who have imposed sanctions and created obstacles in the way of satisfying even their primary needs, such as food and medicine," Rouhani said during his speech on Thursday. His remarks were surprisingly similar to Obama’s. During his address to the General Assembly on Wednesday, Obama spoke extensively about combating extremism. The roots of that extremism is where the two leaders diverged. "Military aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq and improper interference in the developments in Syria are clear examples of this erroneous strategic approach in the Middle East," Rouhani said about the West. Moreover, airstrikes are not the best way to deal with a phenomenon such as the Islamic State, he added.

A day earlier, Rouhani elaborated on American "interference" in Syria. "The Americans have announced the creation of another terrorist group and sent them to fight." Whether he was referring to the moderate Syrian opposition fighters whom the United States plans to arm and train, Rouhani said, "You can call them what you wish."

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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