Why Hassan Rouhani and Obama Shouldn't Sit Down and Talk


Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's recent address to the UN has led many analysts with the prospect that with this more moderate statesman, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran are soon to be established. Yet, behind the backdrop of rhetorical statements ushered in by these well-wishing heads of states lies a thaw in relations that will not necessarily lead towards peace, but rather to a mirage of it.

Prominent figures such as Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes have argued that Iran's recent pursuit of mediation is largely due to U.S.-led sanctions. But the reality could not be further from the truth. Since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Iran now has the capacity to embolden a sphere of influence stretching from Eastern Afghanistan to Southern Lebanon. With a military unchallenged by any neighboring Arab state and healthy demographic growth in a nation of over 80 million, Iran is now an emerging regional power player. Although sanctions have had a crucial effect on the Iranian economy, and led some policy makers in Tehran to question their nuclear program, the true reason Iran's regime is now advocating so strongly for diplomatic talks is this new geo-strategic context.

Tehran now has an incentive to establish relations while Iran is in a position of power. If it loses its grip on the region, it may then have to submit to harsher diplomatic agreements. Hence, it would be dangerous for the U.S. to now begin re-establishing relations, because both parties misunderstand the position of the other. The U.S. believes Iran is capitulating under economic pressure, while Iran is actually seeing the U.S. as hesitant to involve itself in Middle Eastern affairs.

U.S.-Iran relations do need to resume, but this resumption needs to take place in an environment where both parties see the long lasting realities on the ground, rather then jumping on short-term regional trends as a reason to create peace out of mutual convenience. The recent hesitancy shown by the White House for air strikes in Syria (a crucial Iranian ally) shows to the Iranian regime that not only does the U.S. lack the appetite to engage in crises in the Middle East, but that it is looking to regional players in the region to facilitate stability so it may shift its focus elsewhere towards more crucial matters. 

To start dialogue now would legitimize the Iranian perception of their position. That would be dangerous because it is an illusion not sustainable to the changing facts on the ground, and could once again break U.S.-Iranian relations in the coming decades.