Sasan Aghlani
Consultant, International Security

At the opening of this year's UN General Assembly, significant diplomatic efforts by the United States and Iran suggested substantial progress is underway to address one of the fundamental obstacles to rapprochement between the two states – communication.

A handshake or brief exchange of words between presidents Obama and Rouhani may not have occurred, but more importantly, John Kerry, US secretary of state, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, sat at the same negotiating table; the highest ranking officials from each country to meet since the 1979 Iranian revolution. 

Historical prejudices

A lack of confidence has beset relations due to suspicions regarding Iran’s nuclear programme on the part of the US, and Iran’s belief that the US is seeking regime change. The influence of powerful narratives and historical biases over policy-making has been substantial. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the dominant perception of what drives Iran’s strategic doctrine has featured two conflicting premises: that the Islamic Republic’s leadership is fundamentally irrational and 'undeterrable', or that it is driven by an impetus to dominate its region, and challenge the US and Israel militarily.

In Iran, US intentions are viewed through the lens of the 1953 CIA sponsored coup, and US support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. Today, it is popularly believed in Iran that the harsh sanctions stem from a US desire for regime change, and not concerns over its enrichment programme. 

Both President Obama and President Rouhani demonstrated impetus to change these perceptions and the subsequent lack of dialogue in their speeches before the UN General Assembly. Obama made reference to the 'Iranians poisoned in the many tens of thousands' during the Iran-Iraq war, in his appeal regarding chemical weapons use in Syria. Even more promisingly, he cited Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa prohibiting nuclear weapons – a step that may persuade Iran’s leadership that regime-change is not on the US agenda. Rouhani argued that the violence and extremism in the Middle East were the greatest threats facing the world today. He also framed his assurance that Iran would not seek nuclear weapons in secular terms, arguing that 'national interests' deter Iran from obtaining the bomb as much as religious considerations.

Towards dialogue

These overtures challenge the long-standing dynamic of animosity which has shaped US-Iran relations since 1979. Nevertheless, it is important that concrete steps toward rapprochement are taken. Dialogue and improved messaging on both sides will become the focus of initial efforts to mend relations. While backdoor channels have allowed for some degree of communication on key issues, the lack of official channels has obscured genuine attempts at confidence building. Zarif recently revealed that Iran sent a letter to the US in 2012 warning of the transfer of chemical weapons (including sarin gas) to rebel forces in Syria, but that the US did not respond. Obama and Rouhani have now spoken over the phone – a remarkable achievement. What is needed next is a dedicated telephone line between Washington and Tehran as a basic prerequisite for rapprochement to succeed. 

Iran's concerns revolve around what it perceives as US support for regime-change, Syria's civil-war, instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and relations with the Sunni-dominated gulf countries and Israel. If the EU3+3 process is to make any significant headway, it will have to address these issues as well as the nuclear dispute. The problem therefore lies in balancing the purpose of the EU3+3 process – resolving the nuclear standoff – with the practical necessity of expanding the dialogue to encompass issues other than enrichment. It makes more sense for the US to discuss these issues bilaterally with Iran, both due to the unique incentives it can offer, and the potential difficulty in coordinating its own objectives with some other EU3+3 states (Russia, for instance, might feel its own relationship with Iran threatened by the resumption of trade between Iran and the US).

An official bilateral channel between Iran and the US therefore offers practical benefits. Discussion on a broader range of topics other than the nuclear issue could establish a substantive basis for trust between the two states that can in the long run be the foundation for concessions such as reduced enrichment levels, or placing stockpiled nuclear material under the control of a third-party. Coordinating policy on issues of mutual benefit would send positive signals to both Rouhani and the Supreme Leader that the US genuinely regards itself as having a stake in dealing with Iran as an influential power, and partner, in the Middle East.