Can Tehran be trusted?

After decades of hostility, Iran wants to make amends. It may be too late for real change.

Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images

In American President Barack Obama’s inaugural address more than four years ago, he implicitly spoke to the leaders of Iran: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

There was nothing of substance in return. Obama kept at it. A couple of months after his inaugural address, in March 2009, he recorded a Persian New Year message to Iranians, saying that America seeks dialogue and a future of deeper relations with them. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed the overture as merely “changes in words.”

That June, in a speech in Cairo, Obama acknowledged America’s role in the 1953 overthrow of then-Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a long-standing sore spot for Iranians. “Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward,” he said.

Still, there was no sign of a reciprocal thaw from Iran. A week after Obama’s Cairo speech, hardline Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected in a vote many observers believe was rigged. Millions of Iranians felt cheated, too. They protested in large numbers—and were jailed, beaten, raped and murdered for their efforts.

An international standoff regarding Iran’s nuclear program—which Iran says is peaceful and which the United States believes is geared toward obtaining nuclear weapons—continued, leading to the imposition of ever-stricter sanctions, cybersabotage, and an assassination campaign against Iranian nuclear scientists. Britain closed its embassy in Iran in late 2011, following an attack against it. Canada shut its embassy down last fall. Iran had rarely, if ever, been so isolated.

This year’s presidential elections initially seemed to offer little possibility of change. Candidates had to be approved by the unelected Guardian Council, which only gives the nod to those it believes will not threaten the Islamic Revolution. Eight candidates were eventually approved, of whom two withdrew during the campaign. None could have been considered a liberal or even radical reformer.

Among them was cleric and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani. He had a long history of service to the Islamic Republic and was perceived to lack charisma. But Rouhani was the most moderate candidate running and attracted support from the many Iranians who want their country to be different, including members of the Green Movement who took to the streets in 2009. He may not have championed change, but those who want it championed him. Rouhani’s surprise victory was overwhelming. He won more than 50 per cent of the popular vote, tripling the support earned by his closest rival.

“He’s an establishment man. Don’t forget it,” says Saeed Rahnema, a politics professor at York University. “But he now represents elements that think confronting America has not been working and has damaged Iran and that it is better for the Islamic Republic to have this rapprochement.”

And so, over the last few weeks, Iran under Rouhani has embarked on a remarkable charm offensive. Some 80 political prisoners were released, including Canadian Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, who was accused of espionage while visiting his mother in Iran in 2008 and sentenced to death in 2009.

Mirroring Obama’s Persian New Year message, Rouhani’s Twitter account posted a message wishing all Jews a “blessed Rosh Hashanah,” referring to the Jewish New Year. Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, did the same. Challenged, on Twitter, by Christine Pelosi, daughter of U.S. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, that it would be a sweeter New Year if “you would end Iran’s Holocaust denial,” Zarif responded, with a reference to Ahmadinejad: “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.”

This was but a warm-up to Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations last month. “There is no issue or dossier that cannot be resolved through reliance on hope and prudent moderation, mutual respect and the rejection of violence and extremism,” Rouhani said in his address to the body. He pledged Iran to “time-bound and result-oriented” talks on Iran’s nuclear file. Zarif sat down with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

There was much fevered speculation and apparently a bit of playing hard to get by the Iranian delegation regarding a possible face-to-face meeting between Obama and Rouhani. This didn’t happen. But as the Iranian president drove back to the airport, the two leaders spoke by phone—the first such high-level connection between Iran and America in more than 30 years.

Iran, it seems, is finally beginning to unclench its fist. What remains unclear is whether this opening is genuine, and if it will result in real change—both inside Iran and in Iran’s relationship with the outside world.

On Hassan Rouhani’s last night in America, he hosted a dinner at New York’s Hilton hotel. Among the 300 or so guests was Iranian-American scholar and author Rasool Nafisi. The room, says Nafisi, was filled with hope.

“He kept saying, ‘I know why Iranians elected me, I know what they want, and I’m going to work out something to get Iran out of this.’ There was an unarticulated understanding between the audience and Rouhani that, yes, we are here to put an end to these sanctions by putting an end to this stupid nuclear policy.”

Last month Rouhani officially transferred control of the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to Iran’s foreign ministry, run by the English-speaking, Western-educated Zarif. Ray Takeyh, an Iran scholar and former State Department adviser, disputes that this is in fact the case, claiming the SNSC still controls the program. But Zarif is now its public face and will front upcoming international negotiations.

Houchang Hassan-Yari, a fellow at Queen’s University’s Centre for International and Defence Policy, got to know Zarif when they were neighbours at Tehran’s School of International Relations in 2008. Zarif was previously part of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team but was sidelined during the Ahmadinejad era. According to Hassan-Yari, Zarif believed even then that Iran’s confrontational policies were hurting its national interests, and that the country should pursue better relations with America.

This is not the first time an Iranian president and his administration have tried to reconcile Iran with the West. Mohammad Khatami, president from 1997 to 2005, professed similar goals but accomplished little. His efforts were undermined by conservatives within Iran’s heterogeneous power structure, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and especially Iran’s unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

What may be different this time is that Rouhani appears to have Khamenei’s support. “I’m not opposed to correct diplomatic moves. I believe in . . . heroic flexibility,” Khamenei said in a speech to commanders of the Revolutionary Guards shortly before Rouhani’s departure for New York. When Rouhani returned, Khamenei sent one of his advisers, failed presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati, to meet him at the airport.

This apparent endorsement of Rouhani’s diplomacy was unexpected, says Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Khamenei had previously advocated defiance on Iran’s nuclear file. As recently as June he warned candidates not to “give more importance to the interests of foreigners than the interests of Iran.”

But Maloney says that Khamenei has incentives to accept a more moderate president like Rouhani and support a deal that he might strike. Sanctions have devastated Iran, pushing even some hardliners toward negotiations as a source of relief from them. Khamenei also recognizes that Ahmadinejad’s presidency rattled and divided Iranian society, a situation that is even more worrying given the general unrest across the region. “To relieve some of the pressure at this point would be a prudent move to protect the revolution, she says.

Not all Iranian hardliners agree. Protesters met Rouhani when he arrived in Tehran. And this week Revolutionary Guards chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari criticized Rouhani for speaking to Obama and said that “tactical errors” made by the Iranian government could be “repaired.”

“If we see errors being made by officials, the revolutionary forces will issue the necessary warnings,” he told an Iranian news website.

Saeed Rahnema says the Revolutionary Guards are not uniformly radical. “Don’t forget, many are the big capitalists of Iran. They are billionaires now, so peace through security would be very good for them. They become richer,” he says.

Still, Rouhani will not have an easy job selling any deal he might strike on Iran’s nuclear program to other power holders in Iran. And that assumes he is genuinely willing to accept an arrangement that would convince the outside world—and especially America—that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful. This is far from certain.

Rouhani’s UN address struck a conciliatory tone, but he has not yet offered any concrete suggestions as to how Iran and its adversaries who distrust the nature of its nuclear program might bridge the gap between them.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the UN this week, “Sound bites do not remove threats to global security.” He said Canada will judge Iran on its actions.

Israel is also skeptical. In his UN address, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing . . . who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”

Jonathan Fine, a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, says those in Israeli defence and security circles are worried by Obama’s openness to Iran. The Iranians, he predicts, will simply play for time, believing they won’t face serious repercussions for delays or deception. “They sense the weakness of the West,” he says.

Suzanne Maloney believes the Iranians are serious about a deal, and that one is reachable. “It’s clear that the supreme leader has empowered Rouhani and empowered a team. You can’t appoint Zarif as foreign minister, give him nuclear talks, and not expect he’s going to try to get a deal. That’s what he’s programmed to do,” she says.

“I’m more optimistic today than I think I’ve been at anytime at least since about 2000. I think this is a moment when the Iranians for the first time have really put their backs in it. Today they want a deal. And that’s a very good place to have them in.”

But what might a deal on Iran’s nuclear program mean for other tension points between Iran and the West—including Iran’s domestic abuse of human rights; its support for anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon; and, more recently, its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria?

It’s likely that initial negotiations will focus on the nuclear issue, rather than an all-encompassing grand bargain that will restore diplomatic relations between Iran and America. Rasool Nafisi heard that initial talks between Kerry and Zarif last Thursday went fairly well when the topic was Iran’s nuclear program, but floundered over Syria.

Some observers worry progress in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program will result in an easing of pressure regarding human rights abuses inside Iran. Although 80 political prisoners have been released, hundreds more remain. There have been no fundamental changes to Iran’s climate of political freedom. The press is still restricted. Members of the Baha’i religious minority are viciously prosecuted, and their leaders are in jail.

Executions are also rampant. Around the time of Rouhani’s visit to New York, Gissou Nia, executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, counted 27 people who had been executed in the previous two weeks.

“This is while Iran has been getting this amazing press and good attention for the prisoner releases,” she says.

Nia says the prisoner release was motivated by a desire to improve Iran’s image abroad and ease the international pressure on it. Lesser-known prisoners, especially from ethnic minorities, have experienced little change, she says.

“If you do not have a strong lobby behind you, if you are not somebody that has gained international attention and your plight has become really well publicized, then you’re probably not going to see benefits from this small opening and wave of reform that might be happening.”

Nia says Hamid Ghassemi-Shall was likely released at least in part because of his dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship. “That was such an obvious nod to Canada. Canada has such a key role in that UN resolution that they bring against Iran on its human rights violations every year. It was very calculated,” she says.

And yet even if Rouhani and Khamenei are motivated by calculated pragmatism, Iranian civil society will undoubtedly push to widen any space it is allowed, perhaps driving change in Iran’s political system and culture, says Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University.

“An orderly and non-violent transition is certainly preferable to the horrific scenes emerging from Syria and elsewhere. So with Rouhani, there should be cautious optimism, but a clear signal that cosmetic changes will not be sufficient to end the regime’s self-imposed isolation and illegitimacy,” says Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University.

“The far-reaching reforms required in Iran may come in stages, and Rouhani could prove to be an important first step, but certainly not the last.”

Indeed it seems at times that some of the hype surrounding these first tentative steps toward reconciliation—from both Iran and the United States—is more about what people want to occur than what has actually transpired so far. Zarif and Kerry met. Obama and Rouhani spoke on the phone. There’s talk of resuming flights between the two countries. Even during the height of the Cold War, American presidents had summit meetings with Soviet premiers. We’re not there yet. Obama and Rouhani couldn’t even arrange a handshake.

Domestically, despite the release of prisoners, Iran is still an oppressive and illiberal place. We are not yet witnessing a Persian glasnost. And Iran’s relationship with the United States—for all the warm words expressed by Obama and Rouhani of late—remains hostile. But it now seems slightly more possible than it has in years that both these things could change.