Actual good news: U.S. and Iran still looking for peace, despite tension over Syria

September 6, 2013

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, waves after being sworn in at the parliament in Tehran last month. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

The United States faces a long list of problems and complications in Syria, none of which appears to be getting much easier. But there's one that, by the normally low standards of the Middle East, actually looks surprisingly sunny: Iran. While there haven't been any breakthroughs in between the United States and Iran, the two countries are still playing footsie on finding a peace deal after decades of conflict and tension.

Jasmin Ramsey of the Inter Press Service has sorted through the signals out of Iran since President Obama started moving toward attacking the Islamic Republic's closest ally. Although it's anybody's guess what would happen if the United States goes through with strikes, Ramsey found that Tehran has seemed surprisingly intent on moving forward on possible rapprochement with the West. And she's got the analysis to back it up.

One of the most telling data points is that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, though far from condemning Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons, has offered a surprisingly weak defense of the Syrian leader, who may well be Iran's closest ally. Don't expect Iran to change its policy on Syria -- Rouhani opposes U.S. strikes, of course -- but it's striking that the Iranian president's rhetorical support for Syria is softening as the United States moves toward strikes, which is exactly the moment you'd expect an Iranian leader to be most loudly backing Assad and condemning Obama.

Here's why this is a big deal: Iran staunchly supports Assad and badly wants to keep him in power. The United States wants the exact opposite. There's a long history of the two countries contending for influence in the region. So, as the United States moves toward striking Syria, you would actually expect that to be a huge blow to a U.S.-Iran relationship that's already fraught with antagonism and mutual suspicion. You'd think this would be a major, potentially fatal, blow to the very young efforts to find peace.

And yet, Iran's new leaders are not only resisting the pressure from internal hard-liners to take a strong stand against the United States, they're actually sending even more signals of peace and compromise at the exact moment you'd expect them to do the opposite.

Obama started this dance when he first became president in 2009, sending two letters to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and signaling that he wanted to work toward a mutually acceptable peace deal. He was rebuffed – and forced to curtail his efforts after Iran's violent 2009 crackdown on the opposition "green movement" – but a month ago Rouhani took office.

Rouhani immediately softened official rhetoric toward the United States and made one statement after another expressing his desire to compromise and and find peace. Then he appointed American-educated diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif as his foreign minister. Zarif had a played a big role in the Iranian effort, in 2003, to quietly offer a peace deal to the United States (the effort was rebuffed by the George W. Bush administration). Ultimately, Tehran's decision will be made by Khamenei, not Rouhani or Zarif, but the pieces are falling into place. And, as Ramsey documents, Iran's president and his government have been pointedly avoiding lots of hard-line pressure to back away from their gestures of peace.

No one can be sure the United States and Iran will find peace, but if it's possible, then this moment would seem like the best we're going to get -- and maybe have ever had in almost 20 years of trying. So it has deeply concerned some Iran-watchers in the United States, including those who support strikes against Syria, that the country's potential intervention in a war that Iran sees as crucial to its national interests could kill our big chance at peace. And it's possible that, ultimately, that will happen. But it implies a great deal about Rouhani and Zarif's apparent desire for peace that they would still be pushing for it at this of all moments.

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Max Fisher | September 6, 2013