Sadegh Kharrazi dampens excitement about U.S.-Iran rapprochement

Since the election of Hassan Rouhani on 15 June 2013, there have been many hopeful signs about the increased possibility of resolving the most pressing foreign policy issues facing the Islamic Republic of Iran, whether it be the impasse between the P5+1 and Iran in nuclear negotiations or lifting international economic sanctions. Beyond these myriad of problems, there is a growing excitement about the possibility of some form of U.S.-Iran rapprochement, an excitement which tends to overlook the fragility of the new foreign policy climate inaugurated by Rouhani. This past week Sadegh Kharrazi, an Iranian foreign policy heavyweight, dampened this excitement in a strongly worded speech which has reverberated through Iran’s foreign policy community.

Kharrazi is an accomplished Iranian diplomat. He has served as the senior foreign policy advisor to former President Mohammad Khatami, ambassador to France (2002-2006), and ambassador to the United Nations (1989-1995), among other government positions. He holds a B.A. in Management from the State University of New York, an M.A. in Middle East Studies from New York University, and is earning a PhD in History and Science from Durham University. He is also one of the founders of Iranian Diplomacy, Iran’s version of the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Magazine, and serves on the board of the Foundation for Dialogue Among Civilizations. Kharrazi also comes from good pedigree: His uncle Kamal Kharrazi was Khatami’s foreign minister, his sister is the daughter-in-law of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and his son is the son-in-law of the former deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament Mohammad-Reza Khatami.

What makes Kharrazi’s words on the possibility of U.S.-Iran rapprochement particularly interesting is that he is associated with the Reformists, the Iranian political current most in favor of improved relations with the West. During his speech at the launch of a book on U.S.-Iran relations in Tehran, Kharrazi condemned the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era (2005-2013). Turning to the present, however, he was also critical, remarking that: “We think that good days have dawned on U.S.-Iran relations; but when we look at the substance and depth of this affair it is a tragic story.” He asserted that the positive perspective which exists today in the Islamic Republic on U.S.-Iran relations is “superficial and journalistic”, quipping: “Today everyone is excited about a phone call, but no one asks what the result of this telephone diplomacy has been.” Kharrazi is referring here to the historic phone call between Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama which has been hailed by some as the dawn of a new era in U.S.-Iran relations. Kharrazi continued: “Unfortunately in the 10-20 days that has passed since this telephone diplomacy many of our experts and scholars have liked this event and are satisfied, but after 34 years of saying “no” we cannot suddenly say “yes”…The depth of knowledge of many of Iran’s experts today is skin-deep.”

He cautioned against excitement, saying: “This excitement  may put us on another path that may be against the nation’s independence and may deliver a blow against our independence.” He also pondered the domestic political implications of suddenly improved relations with the United States at this juncture, saying that if such a move was not properly evaluated, it could end up being costly for Iran. Rather, Kharazi took the view that successful nuclear negotiations should be prioritized over improving relations with the United States: “Negotiations come before relations with the United States and these negotiations must be based on the rights of the Iranian people.”

Kharrazi also took issue with those in Iran who have conflated the election of Rouhani with the Iranian people’s desire for change in Iran’s foreign policy as a result of sanctions: “Unfortunately it has been advertised that during the election process the people voted in protest of [our] foreign policy and sanctions…” He asked rhetorically if “this kind of advertisement” had not “weakened Iran’s hand in negotiations”, and why some, knowing its harm, would continue to advertise this.

Kharrazi’s overarching conclusion appears to be that Iran’s priority should be nuclear negotiations, and that it would be a mistake to make a “hasty” move toward the United States given the nearly 35 years of antagonism between the two countries. His speech leads us to wonder if improved U.S.-Iran relations are somehow undesirable at this juncture and whether this perspective is Kharrazi’s alone or can be attributed to the Reformist current more broadly. As the next round of P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations on 07-08 November 2013 in Geneva quickly approaches, we will get a better idea of whether the concerns of the Reformist-leaning Kharrazi are justified.