Skip to main content

U.S., Iran relations: No overnight miracles

By Ali Reza Eshraghi, special to CNN
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Fri September 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some were overly enthusiastic about meeting between Iranian, U.S. presidents, writes Eshraghi
  • He asks: Did Obama and Chavez shaking hands change U.S.-Venezuela relations?
  • Do not expect to see an end to "Down with USA" chants across Iran, he writes
  • Eshraghi: Leaders like Rouhani want to obtain a better position in the world via interaction

Editor's note: Ali Reza Eshraghi was a senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies. He is Iran's Project Manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

(CNN) -- There is a story that the first time a Persian 'Qajar dynasty' king attended a concert during a European tour, he was asked what he liked most about it. "The beginning," he answered, having assumed that the sound check was part of the performance.

A similar incident happened during the U.N. General Assembly earlier this week. It was a good opportunity to bring together the Obama and Rouhani administrations in order to tune their instruments.

While vague expressions such as "cautious optimism" were tossed around in the media, in reality some American and Iranian journalists -- and political analysts -- were waiting to hear a symphony orchestra performance. This unrealistic enthusiasm was evident in the focus and media speculation given to the story of Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama accidentally -- but apparently on purpose -- bumping into each other.

Ali Reza Eshraghi
Ali Reza Eshraghi

At midnight Tehran time (the early hours of Tuesday morning in New York, the same day that world leaders were about to attend the U.N. luncheon) Shargh, an Iranian reformist newspaper, hurriedly decided to publish a second version of its front-page story reporting a meeting between the two presidents. On Wednesday, the disappointed journalists published a wishful and envious headline that read "Perhaps Another Time!"

Investing in the probability of a handshake, which would have been symbolically significant despite having little value in terms of political reality, raises a more serious concern.

Did Obama and Hugo Chavez shaking hands change U.S.-Venezuela relations? Having such expectations of diplomacy is like a Persian proverb -- blowing the horn from the bell instead of the mouthpiece.

At a time when our traditional slow and gradual courtship process has been replaced by online dating followed by an instant hook-up, it is not surprising to expect overnight miracles in diplomacy.

Read more: Iranians warm to possible thaw

Open Mic: Tehran
Part 1: Amanpour and Iran's Pres Rouhani
Part 2: Amanpour and Iran's Pres Rouhani
Israel Amb.: Accepting Holocaust low bar

Let's take a look at another example. From the day President Nixon took office in 1969, he wanted to end 23 years of U.S.-China hostility. But he did not shake hands with Mao until after planning, and two trips to China, including one secret visit by his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger.

Winston Lord, a member of the National Security Council's planning staff who was with Nixon on that trip says the Chinese reception was "sort of anticlimactic." He adds: "There wasn't the color and excitement that one expected."

President Obama and Rouhani did tune their instruments during their speeches at U.N. General Assembly; Obama said that his administration does not seek regime change in Iran, and Rouhani responded that managing differences is possible.

However, with these first indications of a change in Iran-U.S. relations, one should not expect to see an immediate end to chants of "Down with USA" at Friday prayers in Tehran or across Iranian cities. After Nixon's trip to China, anti-American sentiments did not completely disappear among the Chinese, but decreased gradually, over time.

That shows why, in an editorial piece in Iran's Revolutionary Guards' weekly paper on September 21, a few days before the U.N. General Assembly, Reza Garmabdary, who is the head of the IRGC political research center, wrote: "the domestic reverberation of interaction [between the U.S. and Iran] must be in a way that preserves the people's rage towards and hatred of the global arrogance."

One might find this suggestion something of a blow to the potential Iran-U.S. rapprochement. But a closer look at the editorial shows that in fact the author gives a green light to an agreement between the Rouhani administration and that of Obama.

Contrary to what has been said in the international media over the past few days, IRGC commanders are not opposed to Rouhani and Obama dancing together -- what they don't want Rouhani to do is actually enjoy the dance. They are warning Rouhani of the cunning tactics of his "expert and skilled" partner.

Read more: Amanpour on why Rouhani may be different

The IRGC weekly stresses that Rouhani's team "must not express complete satisfaction with possible agreements" and continues to demand that "strong guarantees must be obtained for every possible agreement and a major part of the guarantees must be unilaterally offered to Iran." According to the piece, the back door should always remain open and no bridges should be burnt.

Such advice could enrage those who are against negotiations with Iran. But the truth is that the IRGC is looking at the situation as cautiously and realistically as some of its die-hard enemies in the U.S.

Some analysts apologetically argue that the first part of Rouhani's speech at the U.N. General Assembly was merely targeted to his domestic audience, including the Revolutionary Guards. Undoubtedly, the prologue to the speech was filled with jargon and a combination of different theories on humanities and social science.

In other words, he was criticizing the current world order and accusing the West of considering itself as "superior" and the rest of the world (ie. Iran) as "inferior." It is possible that he intended to convey this message using complicated language not to draw too much criticism, but the fact that Rouhani and his accompanying team could truly believe in such sentiment and not only planned to appease the Iranian hardliners cannot be ruled out.

The ruling elites of Iran are not happy with the current state of world affairs; the difference, however, is that some leaders such as Rouhani want to change the situation and obtain a better position in the world via interaction, while others seek confrontation.

Let's not forget that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, has tested both interaction and confrontation during his 24 years in charge.

Previously, as soon as he allowed one group to try an approach, he had to face the criticism of a rival group. Today, however, all of Iran's power players are in agreement, letting Rouhani test the negotiation approach. For example, Judiciary Chief Sadeq Larijani described Rouhani's U.N. speech as reasonable and said: "Provided that the conditions are fair, honorable and [there is] mutual respect, Iran has nothing against negotiations [with the U.S.]."

This is the first time that Iran's political elites have spoken in a unified voice.

Read more: One day, U.S. and Iranian president might shake hands

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ali Reza Eshraghi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT