Iran-West Détente: Between Rhetoric and Misperceptions

By Barbara Gianessi

The landmark meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and British Prime minister David Cameron, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 24th, has been considered a sign of the growing European dialogue with Tehran. The encounter between the head of State of the two countries, in fact, had not taken place since 1979 Iranian Revolution. Diplomatic ties between Uk and Iran had been cut off in 2011, after a group of demonstrators stormed the British Embassy in Tehran protesting against London’s new sanctions against Tehran. Since the election of Rouhani the two countries have been moving toward restoring their diplomatic relations but the recent Rouhani-Cameron meeting symbolize, not only a positive shift in European policy towards Iran, but it also exemplifies the contradictions and schizophrenic declarations that this détente still have to face.

In fact, just a few hours after his historic meeting with Rouhani, Cameron, in his closing speech at the General Assembly, confirmed that “severe disagreement” with Iran persisted, including “Iran support of terrorist organisations, its nuclear program and the treatment of its people” [2]. These declarations embarrassed the Iranian president and triggered an immediate backlash at home. Iranian hardliners, in fact, continue to have an extraordinary obsession with Great Britain, partially due to London’s involvement in the coup d’état against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953 [3]. Cameron’s statements then played the hardliners’ game, undermining Rouhani’s position in front of Iranian public opinion and fueling the widespread idea that the UK and the West still want to interfere in Tehran’s domestic affairs.

The enemy of my enemy is..still my enemy?

©  Site officiel du Président de la République islamique d'Iran| La rencontre entre Rohani et Cameron

© Site officiel du Président de la République islamique d’Iran| La rencontre entre Rohani et Cameron

Despite the fragile political environment, the expectations towards a normalization of the relations between Iran and the international community are mounting also because of the potential role that Iran could play in the fight against the group of the Islamic State (IS, or Daich).

During his speech in front of the UN Rouhani gave qualified support to Western military action against IS inside Iraq, as this intervention was openly requested by the Iraqi government [4]. Nevertheless deep divisions remain over the Syrian conflict, in which Iran is still one of the main backers of Bachar al-Assad’s regime and has thus contested the legitimacy of US airstrikes against the central government. That is why, although having accepted the idea that a coordinated effort with Iran in Iraq is somehow necessary, Western powers are still hesitant to fully incorporate Tehran in their strategy against the Islamic State.
This political context is further complicated by the ongoing nuclear talks between Iranian representatives and the “P5+1 group”, composed by the members of the Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia, China), plus Germany. The P5+1 positions is that the nuclear and the group of the Islamic State issues should be kept separated, but the truth is that political pressure over these meeting is increasing also because of the emerging crisis in Iraq and Syria.

The elephant in the negotiations room
After the last round of the P5+1 negotiations, which ended on September 29th, Rouhani declared that little progress had been made. Several technical issues remain unsolved: the number of centrifuges Iran should be allowed to keep, the future of the Arak heavy water reactor and when and how Western sanctions will be lifted, or suspended. Nevertheless the real obstacle for a comprehensive deal with Tehran seems to be mainly political: the nuclear issue is just a part of Western containment toward Iran.

 © AFP | Le discours de Rohani devant l'Assemblée Générale le 25 septembre

© AFP | Le discours de Rohani devant l’Assemblée Générale le 25 septembre

In fact the Western objective is to ensure that Iran will not have, at any time, the capability to disrupt the regional balance of power: even just an improvement in Iran’s conventional military power would alarm the international community. The real problem is that Western powers have not yet made up their minds on their willingness to accept Iran as an emerging regional power [5]. This because Iran is still perceived as an irrational actor, whose foreign policy is driven by ideology and that must then be politically and economically isolated. They still refuse to accept explicitly that Iranian isolation, not only has not defused the potential threat of Tehran’s nuclear program, but has just strengthened Iranian hardliners that have based their political and economical power on the opposition against the West.

It is worth noting that the region has already paid the price of the West unwillingness to cooperate with Iran even in geopolitical contexts in which they had similar tactical interests. In fact during 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, Washington and the Iranian reformist government of Mohammad Khatami had began to collaborate against their common enemy, the taliban. Then George W. Bush, during a speech in January 2002, closed the door to any form of cooperation relegating Iran in the “Axis of Evil”, so reinforcing Iranian nationalistic forces and opening the way to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [6].

The deadline to reach a comprehensive agreement was already postponed from July 20th to November 24th; now another extension of the negotiating deadline would lack credibility. European countries have no interest in approving more sanctions against Iran, on the contrary an improvement of trade and investment with Tehran would help them reducing their energy dependence on Russia. Positive spillovers could affect also the fight against the IS group, but right now Western demands that Tehran help defeat the radical Sunnis while having no say in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan seems unreasonable and unrealistic.

[1] European Council on Foreign Relations |

[2] Al Monitor | http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/09/cameron-rouhani-meeting-unga-iran-uk-criticism.html

[3] The Guardian | http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/24/iran-hassan-rouhani-united-nations

[4] The Guardian | http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/27/iranian-qualified-support-western-action-isis

[5] Lobelog Foreign Policy | http://www.lobelog.com/real-barriers-to-final-nuclear-deal-iran-p51/

[6] D. Chaudet, « Iran’s diplomacy towards Afghanistan: a stabilising factor ? », Institute of South Asian Studies, working paper, N. 152, 12 July 2012