Comment: The stars are aligned for a better relationship with Iran

By John Baron

President Rouhani's election in June came as a welcome surprise. In a race seemingly dominated by implacable and hard-line candidates, the emergence of a more moderate voice was unexpected but very positive. Iran and the West have been divorced for far too long, and along the way too many opportunities to better relations have been missed by both sides. Both sides must not repeat their past mistakes, if this strategic moment is not to be missed.

The recent telephone conversation between Rouhani and US President Barack Obama marked the first official contact between US and Iranian leaders since the 1979 revolution. Earlier that day, secretary of state John Kerry attended a meeting which included the Iranian foreign minister. These are highly significant moments, and just the sort of diplomatic initiatives which have been notably absent over the past decade.

These opportunities must not be squandered. Looking back, it is fair to say previous openings were missed or badly handled. It is a matter of record that, in the wake of the attacks of 11th September 2001, the Iranians provided significant support to western forces for the early operations in Afghanistan. The Taliban were no friends to the Iranians either, having killed a number of their diplomats in 1998.

However, President Bush's willingness to label Iran as a part of the 'axis of evil' largely put paid to further co-operation and humiliated the reformist President Khatami who had staked his reputation on improving US-Iranian relations. This played at least some part in the result of the 2005 election, in which reformists lost out to hard-liners.

Likewise, the Iranians should have taken Obama's 2009 offer of reconciliation more seriously and properly engaged with the new president. The acrimony following the crushing of the green movement and the increased pressure over the nuclear issue precluded progress during Ahmadinejad's tenure.

A rapprochement between Iran and the West would go a long way to resolve several long-running sores. The nuclear dispute has cast its shadow for at least the last decade, even setting Iran against Russia and China, and providing an easy target for, in particular, Israeli and Western opprobrium. A comprehensive nuclear deal, perhaps permitting limited uranium enrichment and sanctions relief in return for the ratification of a 'beefed-up' inspections régime, would go a long way to reducing tensions.

Iranian and Western dealings in the Middle East and South Asia are also frequently set against each other, even when all would benefit from increased peace and security. Having effectively removed the counterweight of Saddam's Iraq, the West should get used to Iran's regional superpower status. A constructive partnership with Iran could do much to assuage Western concerns over the future of Afghanistan. In addition, as one of the few countries with clout over the Syrian régime, there is much positive work that could stem from a more balanced relationship.

Whilst welcoming his overtures, the West must be alive to the delicate tightrope that Rouhani is treading. Whilst he appears to enjoy the all-important backing of the Supreme Leader, the footwear propelled in his direction following his return to Tehran serve as reminders that his conciliatory actions are not universally popular.

We need to remember that the political establishment in Tehran has multiple centres of authority, and turf wars between the hardliners and moderates are common. The challenge for the West is to understand these nuances. Cautious and patient diplomacy must be the order of the day: if Rouhani is boxed in or humiliated by Western intransigence or over-enthusiasm, his limited room for manœuvre may become starkly apparent as hardliners reassert themselves.

Perhaps the starting – as well as the finishing – point is to recognise the realities of power. Partly because of our misguided invasion of Iraq, Iran is now a regional superpower – whether the US or Israel likes it or not. It is a major strategic player in the many conflicts in the region, and its influence is growing.

History offers us a guide: at a time when US influence in the Asia was on the wane, President Nixon did not deny the realities of power. His historic visit to China in 1972, though criticised at the time, set the scene for vastly improved US-Chinese relations. There is little reason why a similar arrangement could not be sought with Iran. If even a scent of a rapprochement is in the air, the West should artfully capture the opportunity – the stars may not so readily align again for a long time.

John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon & Billericay and a member of the foreign affairs select committee. He has been a long-time critic of the UK’s policy on Afghanistan, and was the only Conservative to vote against his government when Afghanistan was first voted upon in 2010.

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