By Dr. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
As the world ' s eyes focus on President Hassan Rouhani ' s performance at the United Nations this week, expectations are naturally high for meaningful discussions on the nuclear standoff as well as a host of regional issues such as the conflict in Syria and the prospects for a peace summit in Geneva later this fall.
A litmus test of the new administration's foreign policy and its doctrine of "prudence and hope," this week's whirlwind diplomacy in New York will likely have significant ramifications affecting the President's foreign policy priorities. Seeking a "win-win" approach in constructive interactions with the world community, including the West, President Rouhani and his foreign policy team headed by the seasoned diplomat Javad Zarif are poised to benefit from the wellspring of positive feedback already demonstrated by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, as well as so many other prominent voices in the global diplomatic community. Set to hold a number of important bilateral meetings on the sideline of the UN summit, such as with the French President Francois Hollande, who has urged Iran's participation in the Syria peace discussions, President Rouhani will have an important opportunity to advance his objective of clearing the path for normalization of relations with the Western governments, based on mutual respect and shared interests. The big question is, of course, whether or not the US and other Western governments are prepared and or willing to reciprocate the significant gestures from Iran, or are they too addicted to the language of threat and pressure to shift to a more civilized and productive course of action with respect to Iran? By all indications, the diplomatic ball is now in the West's lap, above all the US, and needs to be moved forward in straight lines and without the usual ambiguities and built-in incoherence observed on the part of the Obama administration over the past several years, whereby infrequent gestures of reconciliation have gone hand in hand with purely coercive diplomatic action. Unless there is tangible evidence of a new approach that reflects certain discontinuity in this pattern of counterproductive US behavior toward Iran, it is difficult to see how a meaningful progress in US-Iran relations can be achieved. One of the difficulties of a "win-win" approach is that it threatens the vested interests of third parties such as certain governments in the region, who oppose it because they consider themselves as net losers in such a scenario. It is therefore important that this approach is pursued in tandem with active regional diplomacy in order to build confidence with, among others, the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council states led by Saudi Arabia. Another difficulty in realizing the "win-win" approach is the lesson regarding the utility of force in extracting concessions from Syria, which some White House officials explicitly refer to as applicable to Iran. Yet, this goes against President Rouhani's sound advise that the West should refrain from the language of threat toward Iran. In fact, what the US officials and some hawkish media pundits ignore is the other lesson from Syria, namely, the role of credible counter-threat that played a key role in deterring a US attack on Syria. In other words, it is a sheer error on US's part to seek to apply the "Syria lesson" when the main emphasis should be on civil diplomacy not the latter's infection by the poison vocabulary of threats. With prudent diplomacy by both sides, meaningful progress can be achieved this week on the nuclear issue, which is the subject of a bilateral meeting between Foreign Minister Zarif and the European Union's Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, followed by a multilateral "5 +1" meeting on Wednesday. Both President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have expressed Iran's willingness to enter into a new round of negotiations with a view to addressing any international anxiety regarding Iran's peaceful nuclear program within the framework of international norms, above all, the articles of Non-Proliferation Treaty on the basis of which Iran enjoys unfettered legal right to possess a full nuclear fuel cycle and, yet, is hampered by unjust sanctions aimed at depriving Iran of this "inalienable" nuclear right. Fortunately, a bulk of the international community has solidly supported Iran's nuclear rights and even in parts of the Western world, the tide of public opinion is turning against the Iran sanctions and the unattractive and counter-productive coercive Western policies, which are in fact tantamount to sanctioning the Western companies that are deprived of doing business with Iran. The recent decisions against sanctions in the European courts is a welcome development that reinforces Iran's legitimate grievance regarding the unjust sanctions that must be removed as a result of good faith negotiations lurking on the horizon. In conclusion, there is reasonable ground for cautious optimism regarding the diplomatic windfall from President Rouhani's UN visit and, logically speaking, this may well turn out to be a landmark event on Iran’s foreign policy calendar.