All of a sudden we’re talking to Iran. Now granted that shouldn’t be such an astonishing bombshell. But given the reality of the last several decades, it pretty much is. And that’s all good. It’s been too long coming, it’s still too hesitant, there’s still too much hinting about military force behind it… but we’re talking. Foreign minister to foreign minister, Kerry to Zarif, it’s all a good sign.
There were lots of problem areas in the speech—President Obama was right when he said that US policy in the Middle East would lead to charges of “hypocrisy and inconsistency.” US policy—its protection of Israeli violations of international law, its privileging of petro-monarchies over human rights, its coddling of military dictators—remains rank with hypocrisy and inconsistency. And Obama’s speech reflected much of it.
But President Obama’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly reflected some of the extraordinary shifts in global—especially Middle East and most especially Syria-related—politics that have taken shape in the last six or eight weeks. And on Iran, that was good news. Yes the president trotted out his familiar litany that “we are determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” But this time, there was no “all options on the table” threat. He added explicitly that “we are not seeking regime change and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.” The reference to Iran’s right to nuclear energy represented a major shift away from the longstanding claim among many US hawks and the Israeli government that Iran must give up all nuclear enrichment.
Respecting Iran’s right to “access” nuclear energy is still a bit of a dodge, of course—Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes not just access but “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” Iran is a longstanding signatory to the NPT, and is entitled to all those rights. Obama referred only that “we insist that the Iranian government meet its responsibilities” under the NPT, while saying nothing about Iran’s rights under the treaty. But the high-visibility US recognition of any Iranian right to nuclear power—in the context of a new willingness to open talks—is still enormously important.
It was also important that President Obama spoke of Iran with respect, acknowledging Iranian interests and opinions as legitimate and parallel to Washington’s. He recognized that Iranian mistrust of the US has “deep roots,” referencing (however carefully) the “history of US interference in their affairs and of America’s role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War.” In fact, his identification of the 1953 US-backed coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically-elected President Mohamed Mossadegh as a product of the Cold War may have been part of an effort to distance himself and his administration from those actions. (It’s a bit disingenuous, of course. The primary rationale for the coup was far more a response to Mossadegh’s nationalization of Iran’s oil than to his ties to the Soviet Union.)
Obama also paid new attention to longstanding Iranian positions. He noted that “the Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, and President Rouhani has just recently reiterated that the Islamic Republic will never develop a nuclear weapon.” Now anyone following the Iran nuclear issue knows that the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, stated at least as far back as 2003 that nuclear weapons are a violation of Islamic law and Iran would never build or use one, and the fatwa, or legal opinion, was issued at least as far back as 2005. This isn’t new. But for President Obama to mention those judgments in the context of “the basis for a meaningful agreement” is indeed new.
Mainstream US press and officials have long derided those statements, claiming that fatwas are not binding, that 700-year-old religious laws can’t have a position on nuclear weapons, etc. But in so doing they ignore the real significance—that President Rouhani, the Supreme Leader, and the rest of Iran’s government have to answer to their own population too. After years of repeating that nuclear weapons would be un-Islamic, would violate a fatwa, etc., it would not be so easy for Iran’s leaders to win popular support for a decision to embrace the bomb.
There is a long way to go in challenging aspects of President Obama’s speech at the United Nations—his embrace of American exceptionalism and his recommitment to a failed approach to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, his view that war and violence can only be answered by military force or nothing, and more. He didn’t explicitly state a willingness to accept Iran’s participation in international talks on Syria. There is a serious danger that any move towards rapprochement with Iran would be matched with moves to pacify Israeli demands—almost certainly at the expense of Palestinian rights.
But in the broader scenario of US-Iran relations, this is a moment to move forward, to welcome the new approach in Washington now answering the new approach of Tehran.
More flexibility will be required than the United States is usually known for. The usual opponents—in Congress, in Israel and the pro-Israel lobbies—are already on the move, challenging the new opening. But these last weeks showed how a quickly-organized demonstration of widespread public opinion, demanding negotiations instead of war, can win. We were able to build a movement fast, agile and powerful enough to reverse an imminent military attack on Syria and instead force a move towards diplomatic solutions to end the war. This time around, the demand to deepen, consolidate and not abandon diplomatic possibilities is on our agenda—and perhaps once again we can win.
Phyllis Bennis' books include Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer.