The Iranian Spring

February 1, 2016

It may not be about freedom of expression, respect for human rights or political reform but this still is an Iranian spring; more than anything else a diplomatic one, in the middle of a harsh regional winter.

On January 24, Xinhua news agency reported the following:
“Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first international leader to head to Iran after the trade restrictions were removed, capped his visit to Tehran with 17 agreements for cooperation in areas including energy, trade, and industry, reported Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency…
“During Xi’s visit, the two countries also agreed to increase bilateral trade more than 10-fold to $600 billion in the next decade as China pursues its One Belt One Road project, an ambitious network of road, rail and port routes that will connect China to Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe…”

The Chinese President may have been the first but he surely will not be the last. As a matter of fact, high level visits to Tehran started immediately following agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on July 14, 2015. The first to arrive was German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel on July 19. He was followed ten days later by, EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. The latter delivered to President Rouhani, an invitation by President Hollande to visit France. Later at a press conference, Mr. Fabius referred to his trip as a “new beginning”. And, they were followed by other visitors. These were months before the IAEA certified that Iran had fulfilled her obligations under the JCPOA and the US and the EU lifted their nuclear-related oil and financial sanctions against Iran.

Of course, during his five-day regional tour President Xi Jinping also visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt before going to Tehran. Presidents Obama and Hollande had been to Saudi Arabia following King Salman’s accession to the throne. France had signed contracts worth billions of dollars including arms deals. But, President Rouhani’s visits to Italy, the Vatican and France reflected a different mood. There are many reasons why this happens to be the case, among them the following:
Firstly, with the nuclear deal a decades-long psychological barrier has been crossed. Secondly, Iran’s holding up of her end of the JCPOA has raised the level of confidence the world places in Iran. Thirdly, the deal has led to expectations regarding a more constructive role by Tehran on regional issues. Fourthly, it has been seen as paving the way towards internal reform probably at Iran’s own pace. Fifthly, with economic recovery still uncertain, industrialized countries are desperate for business opportunities. Thus, Iran has been able to emerge as a somewhat stable and predictable partner in Middle East’s sea of turmoil.

The foregoing is not to say that Iran has undergone fundamental change. Neither does it mean that she now enjoys a totally different relationship with the West. But it does show that something has changed. The nuclear deal has opened a new chapter in Iran’s foreign relations, if nothing else.

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are all deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. The Kingdom is also engaged in an open-ended war in Yemen. This was launched as a demonstration of power but now has turned into a major headache. The country is facing internal security challenges. There are strains in relations with the US. Turkey’s relationship with Washington also looks very uneasy. Moreover, her meticulously built cooperation with Moscow has taken a nosedive. Her relations with regional countries are at an all-time low. She faces a huge refugee problem as well as internal and external security challenges. And Israel, another regional power, is also experiencing difficulties with the Obama administration and the EU because of the Iran nuclear deal and the Palestinian question. All of this enhances Iran’s regional and international standing.

Regardless of the outcome of the elections to be held on 26 February 2016 for the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Assembly of Experts, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have done a great service to Iran by leading the effort to break their country’s international isolation. President Rouhani’s visits to Italy, the Vatican and France were of consequence and indicative of Tehran’s ascendancy. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, often referred to as Iran’s regional rivals in Syria, need to see the change and get their act together. Otherwise, Iran will keep gaining altitude while they remain grounded mostly because of self-inflicted problems.

Three protocol observations regarding President Rouhani’s visits:
Italian authorities exaggerated by covering their statutes not to offend their Iranian guests because these works of art are part of Italy’s great cultural heritage.
Reportedly, a state dinner for President Rouhani in Paris was skipped because of a disagreement over serving wine. The French were right; every country has its own traditions and visitors need to respect them. When he goes to Tehran on his return visit President Hollande would sip fruit juice at the state dinner given in his honor and this will not be a problem.
Last but not least, many international news channels showed Pope Francis welcoming President Rouhani at the Vatican. As the two sat at a table across from one another there were no people rushing to pull and push their chairs for them; yet another concrete demonstration of the widely respected and admired modesty of the Pope.

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