There was a lot of speculation surrounding the possibility of Iran’s newly elected President Rouhani meeting with President Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday. Even though the meeting did not happen, progress is in full swing.
During Obama’s speech to the world, he spoke a lot about Iran. After acknowledging that he and President Rouhani had been exchanging letters, he affirmed, “We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.”
Obama went on to say, “We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful.”
The speech struck a particularly optimistic tone, which left open the possibility of a casual encounter by the two leaders. If indeed the two leaders do indeed shake hands during the UN session, it would be the first time since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution that the two heads of state made face-to-face contact.
Although the two presidents likely will not meet this week, Secretary of State Kerry is expected to attend high-level meetings with the Iranian foreign minster this Thursday. This will mark the first time that two high-level ministerial posts meet.
Aside from the words made by both leaders at the United Nations, Iran is searching for something it’s been deprived of for years. Iran wants respect, and it wants to be taken seriously.
Iran has a rich history that requires respect. As Obama acknowledged in his speech, both countries lack trust in the other. This mistrust is rooted, on the one hand, in the perception that America interferes with the sovereignty of independent states as it did in Iran with the CIA-sponsored coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mosaddegh, in the 1950s.
On the other hand, America is deeply skeptical of the Islamic Republic’s motivations behind its nuclear program and its interference with U.S. interests in the region through proxies, which has harmed American troops.
If Iran is granted respect, a lot of progress will be made. Iranians mandated moderation with the election of Rouhani, and their new president has since been making Iranians proud by bringing a breath of fresh air to their foreign policy. Tuesday President Obama responded positively in his UN speech.
In an NBC interview earlier this month, President Rouhani said, “Suspicions and miscalculations have created many walls between nations. Leaders must try to remove these walls. The wall which is called mistrust, the wall which is called suspicion, the wall called miscalculation should all be torn down, and an atmosphere of friendship and kindness should be established among all nations.”
In his speech today he again reiterated the point he made earlier in an NBC interview, saying, “Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine.” He went on to say, “Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”
Regardless of whether or not claims by the Iranian president are true, Iran surely wants to be given the respect of having the ability to enrich uranium even for peaceful purposes. It wants to be treated as an equal on the world stage.
A Gallup poll conducted earlier this year shines a light on Iranian patriotism surrounding their right to develop nuclear power capabilities. Of the respondents surveyed, 63% believe Iran should continue its nuclear ambitions compared to a mere 17% who do not want to continue with the program.
This data implies, in part, that Iranians believe strongly that they have a right to nuclear power, and that world powers should not interfere with that right. This is what respect means for Iran.
During Rouhani’s speech at the UN he restated his desire to establish an atmosphere of friendship and kindness between Iran and the United States. Although a historic meeting didn't happen this time, the opportunity for one still lies ahead if both countries move forward with an honest desire to repair relations.
In the end, both leaders have both expressed an openness to dialogue — this is very positive. Obama has led continuously with the doctrine of diplomacy over war, while Iran’s president has stated that he respects countries that seek a peaceful route over war and has no respect for countries that pursue the alternative.
If Obama is able to orchestrate better relations between the two countries, I believe his foreign policy strategy will be the best of any president in recent history.
Click here for the transcript of Pres. Obama’s speech.
Click here for the transcript of Pres. Rouhani’s speech.