Skip to main content

U.S., Iran relations: No overnight miracles

By Ali Reza Eshraghi, special to CNN
September 27, 2013 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some were overly enthusiastic about meeting between Iranian, U.S. presidents, writes Eshraghi
  • He asks: Did Obama and Chavez shaking hands change U.S.-Venezuela relations?
  • Do not expect to see an end to "Down with USA" chants across Iran, he writes
  • Eshraghi: Leaders like Rouhani want to obtain a better position in the world via interaction

Editor's note: Ali Reza Eshraghi was a senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies. He is Iran's Project Manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

(CNN) -- There is a story that the first time a Persian 'Qajar dynasty' king attended a concert during a European tour, he was asked what he liked most about it. "The beginning," he answered, having assumed that the sound check was part of the performance.

A similar incident happened during the U.N. General Assembly earlier this week. It was a good opportunity to bring together the Obama and Rouhani administrations in order to tune their instruments.

While vague expressions such as "cautious optimism" were tossed around in the media, in reality some American and Iranian journalists -- and political analysts -- were waiting to hear a symphony orchestra performance. This unrealistic enthusiasm was evident in the focus and media speculation given to the story of Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama accidentally -- but apparently on purpose -- bumping into each other.

Ali Reza Eshraghi
Ali Reza Eshraghi

At midnight Tehran time (the early hours of Tuesday morning in New York, the same day that world leaders were about to attend the U.N. luncheon) Shargh, an Iranian reformist newspaper, hurriedly decided to publish a second version of its front-page story reporting a meeting between the two presidents. On Wednesday, the disappointed journalists published a wishful and envious headline that read "Perhaps Another Time!"

Investing in the probability of a handshake, which would have been symbolically significant despite having little value in terms of political reality, raises a more serious concern.

Did Obama and Hugo Chavez shaking hands change U.S.-Venezuela relations? Having such expectations of diplomacy is like a Persian proverb -- blowing the horn from the bell instead of the mouthpiece.

At a time when our traditional slow and gradual courtship process has been replaced by online dating followed by an instant hook-up, it is not surprising to expect overnight miracles in diplomacy.

Read more: Iranians warm to possible thaw

Open Mic: Tehran
Part 1: Amanpour and Iran's Pres Rouhani
Part 2: Amanpour and Iran's Pres Rouhani
Israel Amb.: Accepting Holocaust low bar

Let's take a look at another example. From the day President Nixon took office in 1969, he wanted to end 23 years of U.S.-China hostility. But he did not shake hands with Mao until after planning, and two trips to China, including one secret visit by his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger.

Winston Lord, a member of the National Security Council's planning staff who was with Nixon on that trip says the Chinese reception was "sort of anticlimactic." He adds: "There wasn't the color and excitement that one expected."

President Obama and Rouhani did tune their instruments during their speeches at U.N. General Assembly; Obama said that his administration does not seek regime change in Iran, and Rouhani responded that managing differences is possible.

However, with these first indications of a change in Iran-U.S. relations, one should not expect to see an immediate end to chants of "Down with USA" at Friday prayers in Tehran or across Iranian cities. After Nixon's trip to China, anti-American sentiments did not completely disappear among the Chinese, but decreased gradually, over time.

That shows why, in an editorial piece in Iran's Revolutionary Guards' weekly paper on September 21, a few days before the U.N. General Assembly, Reza Garmabdary, who is the head of the IRGC political research center, wrote: "the domestic reverberation of interaction [between the U.S. and Iran] must be in a way that preserves the people's rage towards and hatred of the global arrogance."

One might find this suggestion something of a blow to the potential Iran-U.S. rapprochement. But a closer look at the editorial shows that in fact the author gives a green light to an agreement between the Rouhani administration and that of Obama.

Contrary to what has been said in the international media over the past few days, IRGC commanders are not opposed to Rouhani and Obama dancing together -- what they don't want Rouhani to do is actually enjoy the dance. They are warning Rouhani of the cunning tactics of his "expert and skilled" partner.

Read more: Amanpour on why Rouhani may be different

The IRGC weekly stresses that Rouhani's team "must not express complete satisfaction with possible agreements" and continues to demand that "strong guarantees must be obtained for every possible agreement and a major part of the guarantees must be unilaterally offered to Iran." According to the piece, the back door should always remain open and no bridges should be burnt.

Such advice could enrage those who are against negotiations with Iran. But the truth is that the IRGC is looking at the situation as cautiously and realistically as some of its die-hard enemies in the U.S.

Some analysts apologetically argue that the first part of Rouhani's speech at the U.N. General Assembly was merely targeted to his domestic audience, including the Revolutionary Guards. Undoubtedly, the prologue to the speech was filled with jargon and a combination of different theories on humanities and social science.

In other words, he was criticizing the current world order and accusing the West of considering itself as "superior" and the rest of the world (ie. Iran) as "inferior." It is possible that he intended to convey this message using complicated language not to draw too much criticism, but the fact that Rouhani and his accompanying team could truly believe in such sentiment and not only planned to appease the Iranian hardliners cannot be ruled out.

The ruling elites of Iran are not happy with the current state of world affairs; the difference, however, is that some leaders such as Rouhani want to change the situation and obtain a better position in the world via interaction, while others seek confrontation.

Let's not forget that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, has tested both interaction and confrontation during his 24 years in charge.

Previously, as soon as he allowed one group to try an approach, he had to face the criticism of a rival group. Today, however, all of Iran's power players are in agreement, letting Rouhani test the negotiation approach. For example, Judiciary Chief Sadeq Larijani described Rouhani's U.N. speech as reasonable and said: "Provided that the conditions are fair, honorable and [there is] mutual respect, Iran has nothing against negotiations [with the U.S.]."

This is the first time that Iran's political elites have spoken in a unified voice.

Read more: One day, U.S. and Iranian president might shake hands

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ali Reza Eshraghi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT