The Iranian Dividend

October 9, 2013     
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Please will the naysayers park for a moment their negativity over the possibility that the new Iranian President Rouhani’s overtures to US President Obama might just be worth considering. Granted, this comes as a shock to long-held positions that Iran is the bĂȘte noire of the Middle East, which is an arguably justifiable position when one looks at the rhetoric and repression of a succession of Iranian leaders.

However, let us entertain the possibility that Rouhani has the sense to realize that his country is facing real challenges in meeting basic needs of the populace and that the previous extreme postures will lead only to ruin and rebellion. There are increasing shortages of food and water, the tough sanctions are biting deep, and there is a growing public restlessness which has been suppressed in the past, but is bound to reoccur. And, the fact that the president seems to have the backing of Ayatollah Ali Kamenei shows this is not freelancing, but the approach of the governing structure.

So, if and when President Obama can weather the moronic behaviour of his own Congress, he should be encouraged to follow (with diligence) the initial rounds of conversation with Iranian counterparts. The focus of these interactions should be on creating practical proposals on how to arrest nuclear development in Iran and apply an effective international monitoring system that restricts nuclear use to domestic purposes. Perhaps the Syrian chemical weapons consensus by the Security Council could be the model.

The stakes of entering into a constructive dialogue go beyond the nuclear disabling issue, important as that clearly is. What is also in play is the potential in creating a dividend in bringing about agreement to end the strife in Syria. Iran is an important player in buttressing the Assad regime with weapons, warriors, and diplomatic support. Any viable near-future response will require Syria to become fully engaged in finding a solution, instead of escalating the issue, building further on the chemical weapons initiative. President Rouhani has already indicated a willingness to become involved as a constructive participant. Such an action — if purposely encouraged as part of the US -Iranian dialogue — would swing the pressures further toward resolution of Syrian conflict. That would be an immense dividend.

But before leaving the outlines of a potential agenda it would be important to slide in a series of human rights topics as part of the quid pro quo of reducing sanctions and mitigating Iran’s isolation. A good starting point would be with the release of political prisoners, more freedom in the universities and a clear commitment to end the persecution of the Baha’is. In fact, putting such fundamentals on the table would be one clear way of testing the sincerity of the Iranians in making this a Gorbachev style move, or at least its Middle East equivalent.

The Iranian people are proud, learned, and historically significant. They are also fed up with being a pariah, but are not prepared to be a sycophant. There is a slight sliver of hope that a change in Western relations with Iran can be improved and that they can play a positive role in finding peace, reducing the threat of nuclear arms, and governing according to rules of law. Now, wouldn’t that be a dividend worth working towards?

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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