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New opportunity for US and Iranian relationship

Hassan Rohani's election as Iranian president gives both his country and the US a fresh chance to reset their relationship

"An open hand, not a clenched fist”, was how Barack Obama described his plan to improve relations with Iran back in 2009. New elected leaders, he assumed, had the power to change things.

Now Iran has a new president. Hassan Rohani, elected in mid-June, offers both countries an opportunity for a fresh start. They should take it.

The sanctions imposed on Iran, designed to stop its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon, have punished the country but have yet to yield the diplomatic victory sought in the West.

Some see the victory of Rohani, a centrist candidate who has already made conciliatory comments about liberalising Iranian society and improving relations with the US, as proof that sanctions work. Therefore, runs the argument, the embargo should be tightened. There is no proof of this.

As Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian-American Council, noted before the election, there has been no lobbying by interest groups in Iran for a rolling back of the nuclear programme, or for a major shift in foreign policy. Lobbying has focused on securing concessions and contracts. 

One sceptical view says Rohani’s victory doesn’t matter anyway, because power still belongs to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This isn’t a very sophisticated opinion. Khamenei’s man in the election, Saeed Jalili, did not win.

Khamenei relies on advisors and remains careful to move in tandem with the mood of those around him.

In any case, there is only one way to test whether Rohani’s election offers the possibility of a thaw in relations between Iran and the West: to take Rohani at face value and try to negotiate a way out of the standoff.

Mistrust wrecked many opportunities in the past. Given the deterioration in relations between the two sides in the past two years, there is little to lose by negotiating in good faith now.

Rohani’s victory opens a window of opportunity. He seems unlikely to make the kind of idiotic statements about Israel that stained the presidency of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Israel’s prime minister has already voiced his doubts about Rohani, seeing him as another Khamenei stooge. But a less rhetorically provocative Iranian president now pushes back the prospect of war.

To take advantage of this, the West needs to think about sanctions relief. This is tricky, because the US Congress is responsible for some of the most punishing elements of the embargo. But the EU sanctions can be more easily scaled back.

Executive orders from the White House could lighten some of the load. As the International Crisis Group said in a report a few months ago, sanctions are only effective in as much as they can be removed.

Loosening the embargo would give the new president a quick popular win and signal to Iran that the West is willing to compromise. The worst that can happen is that the tactic fails and the situation returns to the status quo.

Many interest groups – Gulf allies, Israel, and the faceless lobbyists in the vast institutional apparatus that thrives on the standoff – would object, but the West has much to gain if it can build momentum towards a compromise.

Tehran backs Syria’s regime, Hezbollah and militants in countries like Yemen, and has much sway in Iraq, too. But the mess in the region is as much a problem for Iran as it is for the West. It makes sense to talk to a party so vested in the region’s politics. The economic argument is clear, too.

Thawing relations would send oil prices lower as Iranian crude returned to market and the risk premium dissolved. Given the state of the region now and the continued weakness in oil-importing economies, those are benefits that can’t be ignored.

The US and its allies should take the gamble: welcome Rohani’s victory, open the hand, and get around the table with him.

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