Following election, renewed optimism for Iranian diplomacy

Since the election of President Hassan Rouhani, Iran has become much less isolated from the West, paving the way for renewed diplomacy between the United States and Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, said that the U.S. should remain wary of Rouhani’s seemingly good intentions. It is going to take President Barack Obama’s administration a high degree of diplomatic poise and grace to find a safe position within the maze of conflicting interests that are Iranian-Israeli relations.

Beginning in August, Rouhani’s presidency may be best characterized thus far by amicable interactions with the West, a stark contrast to Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his anti-West policies.

Rouhani, in a recent interview with CNN, acknowledged the Holocaust as an historical event. Throughout his presidency, Ahmadinejad repeatedly referred to the Holocaust as Zionist propaganda. To further separate himself from his predecessor, Rouhani said that the Holocaust was a “crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews, as well as non-Jewish people” and that it was “reprehensible and condemnable.”

Furthermore, Obama and Rouhani spoke over the phone recently, a breakthrough that signified the first time that the leaders of each nation directly communicated with each other since 1979, when sanctions were first imposed on Iran. The sanctions were strengthened in 1995 and 2006 and have been the root of the U.S.’s Iran-related policies until Obama and Rouhani’s phone conversation. Despite Rouhani’s gains in foreign diplomacy, though, he has had a difficult time maintaining peace and support from his hard-line constituents, some of whom still refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust and also refer to the U.S. as “the Great Satan.”

Rouhani must walk a thin line between progressive foreign policy and appeasing the more extreme Iranian citizens, which may be why he purposefully avoided a handshake with Obama at the U.N. General Assembly, which opened Sept. 17, in New York. Evading a handshake may not have been done so much so to shun Obama as much as to calm aggressions in Iran, where angry protesters threw eggs and a shoe at Rouhani as he arrived home on Saturday Sept. 28.

Regardless of Rouhani’s appeasements to the West, Netanyahu still ardently said that the U.S. should not get too comfortable with Iran. According to Netanyahu, Rouhani’s reasonable demeanor may be means to abate suspicion in order to more quietly develop nuclear arms, around which the U.S. should draw a red line.

Given Israel’s past with Iran and Rouhani’s assertion of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, Netanyahu has good reason to be distrustful. But calling for the U.S. to draw a “red line” may just be the result of Netanyahu’s paranoia – not to mention, red lines have not exactly worked out well for Obama.

Israel has been an important ally to the U.S., and Iran has the potential to become one. Both Israel and Iran, based on their positions in the Middle East, are important to U.S. foreign policy as well. The U.S., ideally, should find a way to facilitate peaceful relations with each nation. Iran’s past does suggest strong reasons for the U.S. to heed Israel’s warnings, yet giving Iran a chance to integrate itself into the Western world may potentially be well worth the risk.