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A Meeting That Was Not Held "Hastily"


By Davoud Mohammadi, Editor of Tehran's Shargh Newspaper (source: Iran Review)

Source: Shargh Newspaper

The issue of relations between Iran and the United States has taken a new turn in the past months, particularly in the past few weeks, which has convinced even the most cynical observers that the time is now ripe for a “change” in those relations. Apart from such variables as “the change of tone,” and surprising “speed” at which the two sides have moved toward a possible change in relations, one of the prominent points about the recent developments is the intention of both Tehran and Washington to bring their positions on this issue into the “public limelight.” As a result of that intention, many official positions have been taken by the two sides’ officials and authorities, which have reverberated extensively through international media outlets. The new trend is in stark contrast with the fact that during the past 34 years in which official relations between the two countries have been severed, Western media have been teeming with rumors about “covert” direct talks or indirect and “mediated” consultations between Iranian and American diplomats. An example to the point was a trip to Tehran by an American delegation in June 1986. Despite controversial accounts that were released on that trip at first, it was finally confirmed by officials in the two countries. Another instance was Iran's cooperation with the United States in its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which was followed by direct negotiations between the former US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Clark Crocker, and the former Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, who discussed the political crisis in the Arab country following the fall of the its former dictator, Saddam Hussein.

As a result of such developments, observers have been inclined to not only believe that direct talks are actually going on between the two sides, but also offer speculations that a form of “behind-the-scenes” diplomacy is going on between the United States and Iran. Such notions have taken root so deeply that sometimes even the slightest documented or even undocumented signs have been presented in an exaggerated manner in order to claim that the two countries’ diplomats have actually met. Even visits paid to Tehran by certain high-ranking officials of third countries have been correctly and incorrectly taken to be related to those officials’ efforts to mediate and convey messages between Tehran and Washington. Some of those mediators came with “goodwill,” while others were “profiteers” who gave priority to meeting their own interests rather than making a true effort to reduce tension between Tehran and Washington. Although due to the global standing of the United States and the regional power of Iran, it is almost inevitable for them to get engaged in a certain level of “covert” diplomacy, it should be admitted that as proven during the past few weeks, following a strategy of “overt” diplomacy is more in line with both countries’ national interests. The main reasons for this argument are as follows:

1. The “covert” diplomacy of the past has been mostly aimed to serve certain “small-scale” and “occasional” challenges. However, the current trend of diplomacy between Tehran and Washington aims to enable both sides to review and revise “large-scale” issues and remove “major obstacles” which have led to severance of relations between the two countries during the past 34 years.

2. The risks associated with “covert” diplomacy had previously limited the rank of those officials and diplomats, who were engaged in “covert” diplomacy, to lower levels of authority. That situation had cast serious doubt on the possibility of achieving an agreement which would be backed by executive guarantees for later implementation. At present, however, the highest ranking diplomatic officials in both countries have taken charge of the tension reduction process and this issue will certainly provide necessary grounds for the promotion of negotiations while also increasing trust in the implementation of any possible agreement.

3. When the American delegation went to Tehran in 1986, since proper information was not provided to the public before the trip came into the light, radical elements in both the United States and Iran were offered with a golden opportunity to forcefully enter the scene. Subsequently, they mobilized the public opinion in their respective societies and turned that opportunity for the improvement of relations into a threat which prevented further progression of negotiations. Now, the two countries seem to have learned their lesson from that incident and its consequences, and have chosen for a “public” diplomacy in order to reduce tension in their relations. In this way, they will both have the support of the public opinion on both domestic and international levels, and strip the radical elements of any possible excuse, thus, restricting their maneuvering room and thwarting their efforts aimed at forestalling a diplomatic agreement between the two sides.

4. “Covert” diplomacy is always prone to threats stemming from factional rivalries in both countries. This is even more so as some political figures in Iran and the United States have been using the longstanding challenge between Washington and Tehran as a factional tool to be used for the marginalization of the rival faction and gain victory in various elections. The “covert” diplomacy has not been immune to the implications of this state of affairs. At the present time, however, diplomatic delegations representing the two countries are topped by high-ranking officials and the issue of causing a “thaw” in bilateral relations has, therefore, turned into a “national” concern, which makes it immune to possible abuse by domestic political factions.

5. The “overt” diplomacy will reduce public concern about those kinds of diplomatic give and take, which would be in contradiction with the two countries’ national interests. As a result, officials in charge of the negotiations, who are aware that their every movement is under scrutiny by the public opinion in their respective country, will do their best to protect and safeguard the interests of their nation. The outcome of this state of affairs will be increased satisfaction with the course and results of negotiations in both countries’ public opinions.

The important point, which should be considered here, is that a highly expected meeting between the US President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, did not take place on the sidelines of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. Many experts and other interested people in the world were looking forward to seeing that meeting happen. This issue proves that despite rapid and positive steps that have been taken by Washington and Tehran, the regular concern about expediencies as well as diplomatic caution on both parts is still at such a high level that it seems difficult for the process of detente between the two countries to take on more speed. Such caution, of course, conforms to the nature of diplomatic contacts, but the high pace at which positive signals were sent by both sides had raised expectations that the 34-year spell in relations between the two countries would be finally broken in a short period of time. At any rate, a historical meeting, which could have played the role of an “accelerating” factor for the promotion of bilateral negotiations, has not been held. However, the positive atmosphere which calls for diplomatic detente is still in place and even if the presidents of the two countries do not meet until the end of Rouhani’s stay in New York, it would not mean that their resolve for detente has dampened or they are bent on getting back to “zero degree longitude.” On the contrary, it would mean that both Rouhani and Obama are committed to the exigencies of incremental and non-emotional diplomacy, which in its essence, is not compatible with illogically high speed.

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