New Day for Iran and the United States?

Iranian supporters of President-elect Hassan Rowhani gather in Tehran
June 16th, 2013
11:00 PM ET
By Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s Chief International Correspondent

You can watch the nightly international affairs program “Amanpour.” on CNN International or in its entirety here at the website.

The stunning election victory for reform and moderation in Iran this weekend takes me back 16 years to the mind-boggling election upset I covered in 1997, when the moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami won. I covered him on the campaign trail and dubbed him the Mullah with the smiling face, and in fact his was a new and different face of Iran. He was the first since the 1979 Islamic Revolution to call for reform at home, and for a type of detente (his words to me) with the West and the rest.

As word of Khatami’s landslide victory swept through the country back then, I remember as if it were yesterday, an elderly, religious, working-class woman, tug my sleeve and ask me with a shy and toothless smile: “Will America make friends with us again now?” My heart skipped a beat, and it bled a little too. Iran had spoken, and it has spoken and spoken and spoken for the past 16 years.

This time too, heading for the polls, the Iranian people said they wanted their next president to improve the dire economy that has plunged approximately half the country into poverty. But they also say they want better relations with the rest of the world, including the United States. They are tired of sanctions, isolation, and lurching from crisis to international crisis. Dr. Hassan Rouhani’s election platform called for more moderate policies inside Iran, and for constructive engagement abroad. He is a close ally of former Iranian Presidents Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Both swung their support behind Rouhani, after the system banned Rafsanjani from running. Before he was disqualified, sources told me internal polling had shown Rafsanjani would have won by a landslide too.

Why is this important? Because Rafsanjani is known as a pragmatic conservative and in an exclusive interview with me the last time he ran for the presidency in 2005, he said he wanted to close the U.S. file and establish a relationship with the United States but only if it were mutually beneficial, and based on mutual interests and respect.

When it comes to the nuclear program, no Iranian president will give up the struggle to have the country’s right to enrichment recognized, but Rafsanjani’s top advisers told me this time around that as president he would have worked to ensure transparency and reassure the west that Iran was not building the bomb. It is reasonable to expect Dr. Rouhani to take a similar approach.

But gone are the days when any American or Western government might expect Iran to capitulate or cry “uncle” under pressure. Even under crippling sanctions that have devastated the majority of the people, though not the regime, Iran has not buckled.

In a discussion with veteran U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering at the Asia Society here in New York in February, Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazzaee, said talks with the United States were not a red line for Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But he also said Iran would not engage in dialogue under ultimatums and constant threats of military action.

“As long as pressure is on Iran, as long as there is a sword on our neck to come from a negotiation, this is not a negotiation,” Khazzaee said. “So therefore the Iranians cannot accept that.”

Khazzaee also said Iran could agree on the level of its enriched uranium. “As much as the Iran-U.S. negotiation or dialogue or conversation is not a red line for us, the level of enrichment or the stockpiling 20 percent enrichment is not a red line for us too,” he said.

Pickering sought to convince Iranians that the United States is not after regime change there.

For the 34 years since the Islamic Revolution of Iran, relations between the two countries have been locked behind a massive and growing wall of mistrust and deep suspicion.

Although periodic feelers are extended by both sides to try to break the impasse, they never get anywhere, breaking down at the first sign of resistance. For instance President Obama came into office extending a hand to Iran and offering direct negotiations. But many analysts believe that absent Iran immediately leaping to take that hand, the outreach was more a way to show willingness and thus differentiate from the Bush administration, and to better convince allies to go along with what are now the toughest sanctions ever imposed.

Despite 34 years of dysfunction between Iran and the United States, this remains the most important relationship never engaged. Look in any corner and Iran looms large: rising influence in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria backing the Assad regime, and of course the ever-menacing possibility of direct conflict unless the differences over Iran’s nuclear program are resolved. And so far, years of on-again-off-again talks have failed to do that. Iran wants to see the endgame and meaningful sanctions relief, while the U.S., Europe and Israel want the nuclear program stopped or severely limited. But it will take political courage on all sides. So far the small incentives the West has offered are “just peanuts,” as Hossein Moussavian, a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team under Dr. Rouhani, told me. “They want diamonds for peanuts” he added.

And so today, I am struck by an incredibly timely lesson from the past. Fifty years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy delivered one of his most important speeches ever.

It was about the Soviet Union and arms control, at the height of the Cold War. The New York Times described in great detail how the speech was crafted by the president’s master wordsmith Theodore Sorensen, a month in the making and needing to be delivered in 1963, not the highly politicized election year of 1964. And preparation of the speech was kept secret from the Pentagon lest the military balk at the idea of any deals with the USSR, its fiercest enemy.

The speech contained themes that today are prophetic for many reasons. As illustrated in this article, President Kennedy talked about an entrenched fear of Armageddon that had taken root among the American people, who were unable then to even contemplate a time of peace with Moscow.

“Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal,” President Kennedy said. “But that is a dangerous defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man.”

If the Soviet Union was the United States’ mortal enemy back then, Iran has assumed that position for the past 34 years, ever since the 1979 Revolution ushered in Islamic theocracy-slash-extremism-slash-terrorism-slash-anti-Americanism around the world. This is perhaps America’s most important and dysfunctional strategic relationship of our time.

And so especially today, after this election result in Iran, and after 22 years of reporting from there, I am convinced that there are mutual interests that could be negotiated, just as the U.S. did with the USSR for decades. As the New York Times reminds us, President Kennedy’s speech quickly led to a hotline between Moscow and Washington, and a limited nuclear test ban treaty.

President Kennedy took political risks to stake out this new position between Washington and Moscow. We can all agree that in 34 years no U.S. president has invested anything like that political capital, making a case for why it can and must be different between Washington and Tehran. Just as the United States found Soviet Communism repugnant but dealt with it, and eventually saw it off into the sunset, it has just as consistently refused to do the same with a system it finds equally repugnant, and yet so vital to manage.

People will be tempted to shrug off Rouhani’s win as mattering little in a system where the Supreme Leader – and perhaps even more so the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – have the last word. But consider this: back in 1997, I called Khatami the mullah with the smile, and his public countenance did make a difference.

He gave me his first interview as president, arriving fists unclenched, hands outstretched. For a full hour on CNN, before the whole world, he became the first Iranian leader to apologize for the 1979 hostage crisis that had so poisoned the chalice of U.S.-Iran relations. He denounced terrorism and the killing of civilians including Israeli civilians, addressed the nuclear program and much more.

Afterwards, international diplomats who had been closely watching told me he had in fact delivered a sweeping manifesto for a new Iran with a more freedoms at home, and much better relations abroad.

Unfortunately watching in Washington, the Clinton Administration at the time could not see the forest for the trees, could not read this new language and dismissed it as more of the same, and so responded with more of its own same, “… actions not words” etc., etc., etc.

A couple of years later though, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright delivered an important speech in which she expressed regret to Iran about the 1953 CIA coup that ousted Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh and re-installed the U.S-backed Shah (leading in great part to the 1979 revolution – see the book “All the Shah’s Men”). She also announced the United States would lift sanctions on, wait for it, pistachios, carpets and caviar! But it was a gesture and indeed, a senior Iranian official later presented Albright with some pistachios, caviar and a carpet! This was progress at a certain level. Could it lead to more?

After 9/11 it did. The Iranian people distinguished themselves by being the only citizens of that region to pour into the streets and hold candlelight vigils. President Khatami sent condolences to the American people. Later when President George W. Bush sent forces into Afghanistan to despatch the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Iran did much more, playing a crucial role for the United States in pulling together the political solution for the new Afghanistan. (See James Dobbin’s book “After the Taliban: Nation-Building in Afghanistan”.)

Pickering told me this week: “That was quite remarkable. And it is an interesting testament to the fact that even after years of mistrust and misunderstanding, on some things we have been able to work together like Afghanistan and that still holds open promise.”

But right after that mutual co-operation came President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, lumping Khatami’s Iran with Iraq and North Korea. There is no way to describe what a setback this was for President Khatami and the reformist camp. It played decisively into the hands of Iran’s powerful hardliners who then were determined to scuttle Khatami’s reforms and reach-outs.

Blowback came in the form of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election, and the past eight excruciating years. Again, I was the first to interview him as president, and he bullishly laid out for me the direction Iran would be taking henceforth, accelerating its nuclear program (as nuclear negotiator back in 2003 it was Dr. Rouhani who had agreed to a temporary suspension of the program as a confidence-building measure). In our interview I remember telling President Ahmadinejad that he sounded very aggressive. I think it is fair to say that no post-Revolution Iranian President had taken such a belligerent public stance to the world, and thus brought such backlash and hardships on his country and his people. Overnight Iran went from the president with the smiling face to the snarling president baring his fangs.

Now there is a new day, and a new chance. The Iranian people have been remarkably consistent in their desires. Will the Ayatollahs recognize Dr. Rouhani, who is one of them after all, as a face-saving agent of detente or will they clip his wings as they did Khatami’s? Will the United States decide that this is a strategic relationship worth resolving with all the political courage and determination that will take?