Obama-Rouhani phone call: What’s next, if anything

President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone. It was the highest-level contact between Tehran and Washington in three decades.

Questions:

1. I think it is safe to say that with President Ahmadinejad this phone call would never happened. So was the fact that somebody like Rouhani was elected as Iranian President absolutely crucial in arranging this conversation and what has changed on the American side?

2. I know it is still more of a speculation but what must be overcome on both sides and where this phone call may lead? To some real discussion about a broad range of issues between Tehran and Washington or do you expect something very limited? Or maybe nothing will happen?

Answers:

Jamsheed Choksy, Chairman, Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Professor of Iranian Studies, Indiana University Bloomington

1.Iran under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad constantly made threatening speeches against the U.S., the E.U., and Israel. Iran’s new leadership under president Hassan Rohani, like under former president Mohammad Khatami, has returned to using the language of reconciliation. This change of tone makes it easier for both sides to reach out to each other. Having an Iranian president who speaks of peace makes it possible for the American president to speak of peace as well.

2. Friendly tones can set the stage for reduction of tensions. But diplomatic words cannot endure for long without tactical progress through actions that change the nuclear and economic situations. Iranian political and clerical elites are still extremely divided over whether to trust the negotiation process, work with the U.S. and E.U., and accept compromise. This was evident on Rohani’s visit to the U.N. General Assembly where he could not accept an invitation to shake hands with Obama, where even an eventual telephone conversation has Rohani’s office depicting Obama as desperately seeking to gain access to a reluctant Iranian president, and a face-to-face meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif ended only in agreement that the two sides would meet again as planned one month later under the framework of P5+1 talks. Yes, telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings are essential, but those alone will not resolve the bilateral and multilateral tensions. Specific timetables for nuclear inspections, enrichment control, and sanction easing must be established and implemented in the near future for real progress and better relationships to develop and strengthen. If not, it will be nothing but talk just as has happened for so many years.

Walter Posch, Deputy Head of Research Divison Middle East and Africa, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP)- German Institute for International and Security Affairs

Yes Ruhani’s election was crucial for several reasons, first he is experienced internationally and well connected domestically. Second he enjoys the support of Supreme Leader Khamenei and has never given in to the IRGC. Third he could convince his interlocutors of his sincerity, but there are other reasons: the West and Iran are in the same boat when it comes to the jihadis the momentum of pressure on Iran is “ripe” i.e. more sanctions would make the regime change track and in last consequence the war track inevitable etc.

2. If Ruhani survives this domestically – and he has to – then it means that the radical romantic-revolutionary zealots are out of business in Iran for good. Coming to Iran’s relations with the West first there must be success on the nuclear front and secondly one can make an evaluation of common interests in the region, Afghanistan for instance.

Jalil RoshandelAssociate Professor, Director of Security Studie, East Carolina University

1. One has to look at the claims behind the question. Why and how the conversation took place? Americans are saying the Iranian delegation asked for the conversation; the Iranians are saying it was initiated by the Americans. You are not going to be able to find out who initiated, however the call was made from the White House.

Two possibilities:

a- After Rouhani missed the opportunity to see, say hello and shake hand with Obama at lunch, he was criticized to not taking practical steps other than delivering a nice talk at the UN. He, probably, wanted this talk and so his people encouraged or conveyed a message to the people in the white house that “if they call, he will answer and talk to Obama”.

b- Obama was impressed with Rouhani’s talk and he wanted to engage him and encourage him to go above and beyond and make some sort of commitment. Otherwise how else the white house could be reassured of Iran’s intention to break 34 years of hostility.

The detail of the conversation has not been revealed; they must have talked beyond the nuclear issue. -Though part of 15 minutes must have been wasted for translation.

To go back to your question, Ahmadinejad tried several times, but his manners and his literature was no ice breaker and it did not and could not go through. Rouhani stands between the reformists (Khatami line) and the Supreme Leader (Khamenei) who seems to have accepted the necessity of “reform”. This conversation is the poster child of overall crucial social and economic situation of Iran bending under the pressure of sanctions. On the American side, one needs to understand that US does not have major gains from the sanctions and is only damaging its international reputation. So a change of policy was very timely now that a change of leadership behavior can be felt and seen in Iran. US will have better gains in dealing with Iran rather than spending energy to repel.

2. I am not sure Iran is ready for a full-fledged relation. Mistrust has ruined their clear view of the relation and since last week Iranian hardliners are trying to demonstrate that Americans are the evil and Iran will not gain anything from restoration of relation. However this is no more the dominant voice in Iran and the hardliners have greatly lost their audience.

Obama had tremendous difficulty to pave the road for a real restoration of relation. The Republican and the Israeli Lobby just to mention a few will not make it easy to remove the sanctions, however in a real opening, Iran will be a good client for the years to come and that is what the US economy would wish to see happening.

The Iranian side hesitation is more rooted in the history, but once someone dares to open the road, the majority will follow.

Barbara SlavinSenior Fellow, The Atlantic Council

You are right that it is hard to imagine such a phone call taking place between Obama and Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has distinguished himself from his predecessor with moderate rhetoric and an expressed desire to improve relations with the United States. There have also been a few concrete gestures in the past week, including the release of nearly 100 political prisoners. That said, we are all waiting to hear the details of Iran’s promised new nuclear proposal. If, as Rouhani said, he wants an agreement within a year, Iran will  have to be  prepared to make big concessions. So I am withholding judgment until mid-October, when the P5+1 holds its next meeting with Iran.

Alireza NaderInternational Affairs Analyst, RAND Corporation

I think not having Ahmadinejad as president definitely helps. But I also think that the Islamic Republic leadership, particularly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have changed their calculations. The nuclear program and the overall status quo in Iran were becoming very costly. The economy is in crisis and the regime feels threatened. Thus, Rouhani has been empowered to lift sanctions through negotiations. He is a figure the US and the West can deal with. It doesn’t mean that all problems between the US and Iran will be solved, far from it, but there is now a greater chance for diplomacy to work.

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