Speculation over Iran-U.S. Détente Continues Apace

WASHINGTON – Ahead of a possible – if seemingly accidental – encounter between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the corridors of the U.N. Secretariat building Tuesday, speculation over the possibility of détente between Washington and Tehran has become rampant.

A series of conciliatory statements and steps taken by both sides in recent weeks has fueled the imaginations of foreign policy mavens here, with some warning against possible U.S. “appeasement” of what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called, in a reference to Rouhani, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, and others giddy with the possibilities of ending 34 years of mutual hostility.

So far, the former group, which has clearly been spooked by the remarkably successful public relations offensive conducted by Rouhani and his less-than-two-month-old government, is more vocal, particularly in the Congress where the Israel lobby enjoys its greatest influence.

But among the traditional foreign policy elite and Iran specialists, the optimists appear dominant, encouraged and very pleasantly surprised by developments on the Iranian side of the past few weeks.

Not the least of these was last week’s clear alignment, at least for now, by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – regarded as the ultimate “decider” when it comes to matters of foreign and strategic policy – behind Rouhani in an appearance before the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Not only did Khamenei call for “heroic flexibility” in negotiating a resolution to the long-running stand-off with the U.S.-led West over Tehran’s nuclear program in a joint appearance with Rouhani. He also backed up the new president in reminding the IRGC, long regarded as a potential spoiler in any détente strategy, that the Islamic Republic’s founder, the revered Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had warned against its involvement in politics.

“To the best of my knowledge, the Supreme Leader has never made a statement like that; nor has anybody at a senior level made a public reference to Khomeini’s injunction. I don’t think you’ll ever get a clearer statement,” according to Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council during the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations.

“To me, that sounded like an endorsement of what Rouhani was doing and warning …that, ‘if you’re thinking about a spoiling operation, think again’,” he told IPS.

The current speculation goes beyond a possible resolution of Iran’s nuclear program to include possible cooperation on regional security issues, including Syria and Afghanistan.

It comes as both Obama and Rouhani prepare to address the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday, a coincidence that has already sparked debate over the pros and cons of the two men “accidentally” meeting and exchanging greetings or more as they pass through the building’s hallways.

Republican leaders generally opposed the idea, while Democrats offered wary support Monday. At the same time, half a dozen activist groups, including MoveOn.org and Win Without War, submitted on-line petitions with nearly 111,000 signatures calling on Obama to meet with Rouhani, while the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal warned that such a move would confer on Iran’s “dictatorship new international prestige at zero cost”.

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