Approaching the West
Finally some good news! Even the fact that Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rouhani didn't cause any further indignation with his speech at the UN General Assembly can be seen as a positive step. Although the Israeli delegation boycotted Rouhani's talk from the start, no one left the room in protest. So far so good.
In contrast to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani neither denied the Holocaust, nor threatened the West or predicted the imminent destruction of Israel. Rouhani even left New York in the company of Iran's single Jewish parliamentarian. And even more significant: in an interview with CNN, Rouhani judged Nazi crimes as reprehensible.
With all this, Rouhani has clearly made a break from his ultra-conservative predecessor, and from his politics of confrontation and provocation.
Rouhani the peacemaker?
In his highly anticipated speech, Rouhani referred to Iran as an anchor of stability in a volatile region. With his statement that Iran is part of the solution and not part of the problem, Rouhani signaled his willingness to resolve regional conflicts with diplomacy. This is especially the case for the war in Syria, where he condemned the use of chemical weapons.
And the Iranian nuclear program? The new president demonstrated willingness to compromise with the West, which fears that Iran could develop a nuclear bomb. His country merely wants to peacefully use nuclear energy, Rouhani clarified. Direct negotiations with the United States on the nuclear issue and other open questions are also possible, he indicated.
Laundry list of points
There's no lack of things to discuss. Obama and Rouhani could not only talk about a possible way out of deadlocked nuclear program talks, measures to build trust, and the lifting or at least loosening of Western sanctions. Also regional issues could be on the agenda - like a peaceful solution for the Syria conflict, assuring political stability in neighboring Iraq, and the future of Afghanistan after international troops have withdrawn in 2014.
Nonetheless, the hoped-for handshake between Rouhani and Obama on the grounds of the UN headquarters did not take place. The former "great Satan" - the US - and alleged "axis of evil" driving force, Iran, are apparently not yet prepared for that step.
Regardless, on Thursday (26.09.2013), US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet in New York under the auspices of the so-called P5+1, to discuss the Iranian nuclear program. These will be the first direct such talks and as such, a clear sign of coming together.
More than mere lip service?
And what's more: Kerry and Zarif sitting at the same table would amount to the highest-ranking meeting of the two arch enemies since the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. This meeting, after a decades-long virtual ice age in relations between the two countries, could mark a sensational turning point and inaugurate a new chapter in diplomatic relations between Iran and the West as a whole.
Leading up to the UN General Assembly, Zarif had already met with British Foreign Minister William Hague. And along the sidelines of the UN assembly, Rouhani himself met with French President Francois Hollande and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
The conciliatory tones of the new Iranian president amount to good news. But it cannot be forgotten that the path from lip service to actual compromise can be a very long one.
Pressure through sanctions
It must be clear to Iran's religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and to Rouhani, that previous stalling tactics against the West are no longer effective. They should rid themselves of these, as quickly as possible.
There is hope for this. The Iranian regime is under pressure, not least due to Western sanctions, which have greatly weakened Iran's economic power. Swift negotiations are the order of the day.
And this requires direct talks with the US - now that would be very good news.