A New Trio: US, Russia and Iran

A New Trio: US, Russia and Iran

You must know Dinah Washington’s most famous song “what a difference a day makes”. What a difference the last two weeks have made. Amid serious debates on a military strike on Syria, President Obama found himself in the middle of unexpected diplomatic initiatives first from Russia and then Iran, which were certainly correlated.

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote a dovish op-ed in the New York Times, making his case against a military strike in Syria. Right after that, Obama caught himself dishing up an agreement with him on eliminating the chemical weapons of Syria which is already moving along. And we just heard Putin saying that Obama has demonstrated great human and political courage in the settlement of the Syrian problem. 

In the very same days, another unexpected diplomatic move came from the recently inaugurated President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. He did the most popular act of these days: Wrote an op-ed in an American paper, the Washington Post, arguing that international politics is no longer a zero-sum game and urging his counterparts to engage in constructive dialogue with him. Being exposed to Putin’s emerging role as a peacemaker last week, Obama has now faced this second trauma. 

Actually Rouhani’s move did not come as much of a surprise as Putin’s. It was another one of many gestures of goodwill Rouhani has made towards the U.S. since taking office in August. Having recently exchanged letters with Obama, he gave an interview to NBC News last week, saying that Iran has never sought to pursue nuclear bomb and would not do so in the future. He even suggested facilitating dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition. Just like Putin, he depicted himself as a stabilizing peacemaker and a “man of reason”, seeking detente with the West. 

Rouhani might have a face-to-face meeting with Obama tomorrow in New York on the sidelines of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. This would be the first meeting of American and Iranian leaders since the Islamic Revolution nearly 35 years ago. This is a clear and sharp contrast to Rouhani’s immediate predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had regularly denounced the U.S. and Israel for a decade. Similarly, Ahmadinejad used to define the Holocaust as a myth whereas Rouhani wished the Jews around the world a happy Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, two weeks ago.

Rouhani’s pledge to engage in constructive interaction with the world, specifically the U.S., underlines his new pragmatic and seemingly peaceful public diplomacy. This radical change provides an unprecedented diplomatic opportunity to transform the relations with Iran. The chances would never be this high again. Tehran’s move, however, points at a more dramatic international development. Iran is likely to have a significant behind-the-scenes role to end the Syrian war. While Russia is getting tough with Assad, the Iranians could join the U.S.-Russia efforts for a settlement. Tehran, like Washington and Moscow, is also frightened of the increasing power of the radical Islamists in Syria.
Hence the interests of the U.S., Russia and Iran all point toward putting heavy pressure on Assad to sign an agreement since the survival of his regime seems to be the least bad outcome to these three powers.

I would like to believe that Turkey sees this big picture and adjusts its foreign policy accordingly. President Abdullah Gül’s meeting with Rouhani tomorrow in New York will definitely give us a hint about this.