Beware hype over US-Iran thaw

It was hailed as the "handshake that could shake the world", but in the end, the clasp of hands between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani never happened.

There were plenty of warm words and diplomatic hints on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly that got everyone excited about the prospect of the United States and Iran on the brink of a historic reconciliation.

If this were to come about, it will amount to the biggest geopolitical shift since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. It would avert a confrontation over Iran's nuclear aspirations, save lives and remake the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the chances of such a major breakthrough remain slim, not so much because of a lack of political will but more because neither side appears able to overcome the sheer enormity of the hurdles which lie ahead.

Relations between Iran and the US have sunk so low and Iran's isolation from mainstream international political debates has been so thorough that the arrival of Mr Rouhani's delegation in New York last week was treated as similar to the landing of some Martians.

Western media networks reported with wonderment that he and his entourage were actually able to smile, that they spoke "quite good" English and that - even more amazingly - some actually read foreign newspapers.

US journalists who spend their working lives lampooning politicians suddenly became respectful and went giddy with excitement at the prospect of being ushered into a hotel room for a meeting with the great man from Teheran.

"It was a careful Rouhani who sat down for a one-to-one interview," wrote David Ignatius of the Washington Post in reverential tones. Just think of it: The Washington Post journalist was suddenly faced with an elected politician who agreed to answer questions! Truly astonishing.

And as everyone swooned, few noticed that the most concrete sign of a US desire for reconciliation was Mr Obama's expression of regret for a US-sponsored coup which removed a previous Iranian government from power more than six decades ago.

In return, the most obvious Iranian concession was Mr Rouhani's public acceptance that the mass murder of Jews during World War II did indeed happen. The fact that both of these historic episodes still needed official "clarifications" did not strike many savvy commentators as unusual.

Myths rival reality

DOES this hype matter? Yes, and a great deal, for the media-fuelled excitement about the potential for a US-Iran breakthrough can create dangerous new myths which only complicate the already arduous diplomatic negotiations.

The first myth is the idea that Mr Rouhani is a "radical reformer". Unlikely: He is a man of the system, which is why he was allowed to run in the latest Iranian presidential elections.

Nor has Mr Rouhani surrounded himself with reformists: His newly appointed minister of justice is none other than Mr Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a man who was instrumental in the extra-judicial execution of thousands of Iranian political prisoners during the late 1980s.

While Mr Rouhani kept charming journalists in New York, the narrative put forward by the state-controlled media inside Iran remained quite different. General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of Iran's Basij revolutionary forces, told domestic television viewers that it was the US which was "begging for talks" because it had been "humiliated".

Almost everything Mr Rouhani said in New York was reinterpreted at home: Iranian news agencies even denied that their President expressed specific regret for the Holocaust against the Jews.

Yet the biggest myth prompted by the current media euphoria is the idea that Mr Rouhani is somehow uniquely amenable to a deal with the West of a kind no other Iranian leader has ever contemplated.

The reality is that all Iranian rulers - including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader - have always argued that a deal with the West is not only preferable but also necessary; the dispute was over what terms, what price Iran should pay for it.

Much has been made in the last few days of a recent statement by Ayatollah Khamenei, who argued that Iran needs "heroic flexibility" in its dealings with the West. This is a reference to the founders of the Shi'ite branch of Islam who more than a millennia ago made painful sacrifices with their Islamic enemies in return for peace.

But the reality is that Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly mentioned the concept in the past as well, as far back as 1996, and on no previous occasion did this presage a willingness to compromise.

Still, it would be churlish to deny that, this time, Iran's President is far more eager for a settlement. The Western-imposed sanctions are not the only reasons for Iran's change in attitude. Just as important has been the increasing anger of the Iranian people at their deteriorating economic situation and their sense of international isolation.

Tough deal ahead

ULTIMATELY, Iranians voted MrRouhani into office because they are unhappy with the steep price they are paying with their well-being for a nuclear programme.

Pakistan's late president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto once vowed that his people were prepared to "eat grass" in order to get the bomb; Mr Rouhani knows that Iranians prefer a different diet. So, all the evidence suggests that the new Iranian President genuinely wants a deal.

And the outlines of such a deal have been evident for some time. Iran must stop enriching uranium, shut down the fortified enrichment facility at Fordow and export its low- and medium-enriched uranium: what diplomats usually refer to as "stop, shut, ship".

That is quite a tall order for the Iranians to accept.

Yet even assuming that Mr Rouhani goes along with it, what he wants in return - the immediate lifting of the economic sanctions - is simply impossible. Many of these sanctions were implemented under international resolutions and cancelling them will require coordination.

Many others were imposed in legislation by the US Congress and lifting such sanctions is notoriously tricky: Those imposed on the Soviet Union in the 1970s continued unabated a full two decades after the USSR disappeared.

The US Congress will be persuaded to lift the sanctions only if it becomes clear that, as President Obama recently put it, Iran succeeds in "showing the international community that it's not trying to weaponise nuclear power".

But the term "weaponisation" is highly ambiguous: Does it mean that Iran is a nuclear state once it has the ability to produce a crude device - something it may already have today - or when it obtains a future warhead? What happens if Iran halts its nuclear programme but accelerates its manufacture of delivery systems?

It is therefore obvious that for the deal to work, a mechanism of intrusive verification will have to be put in place. And it is equally obvious that such an arrangement will have to be operational for years, to reassure both Israel and the Middle East's Arab nations that Iran will not have a so-called break-out capacity, the opportunity of making one final dash to nuclear status.

Possible regime change

UNFORTUNATELY, the record of such efforts is not encouraging. While Western intelligence services have generally been good at identifying countries seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, they have invariably been wrong in accurately guessing where a country was in its nuclear development cycle.

Even assuming that by some miracle, Iran accepts lengthy and intrusive verification and that its results are satisfactory for all, this will hardly be the end of the story.

For it is inconceivable that, having given up its nuclear quest, Iran will also abandon its regional allies such as Hizbollah in Lebanon or the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is equally inconceivable to envisage an Iran which has normal relations with the US while still undermining US allies in the Middle East or threatening the security of Israel.

The real problem with the proposed negotiations with Iran is that they are too narrow: They are seeking to deal with the nuclear issue, rather than the broader security situation which prompted the Iranians to develop nuclear weapons in the first place.

The proposed talks with Iran resemble the disarmament negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War: They can yield some progress, but the fundamental hostility and confrontation never go away.

And we all know how the Cold War ultimately ended: not with "historic" disarmament deals but with regime change, precisely what Mr Obama promised not to seek in Iran.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.