It’s been thirty-four years since the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the western-backed Shah, and relations with the west are finally beginning to show signs of change. Following the election of the (comparatively) moderate President Hassan Rouhani in Iran this past august, the United States as well as many other western governments have discussed the possibility of engaging in more direct talks with the new Iranian leader. However, regardless of Rouhani’s diplomatic abilities, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is still the highest official in Iran, and there remain many in the west critical of any outreach towards Iran. However, if the United States and the rest of the western world truly want to reach out to Iran, now is as good a time as any.
Following the regime change in 1979 and the revolution that came with it – especially the hostage crisis in the American embassy – the United States cut off all official diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran. To this day the United States still channel most of their messages to the regime via the Swiss embassy in Tehran. Interestingly, Canada never formally broke ties with Iran after the revolution, despite its participation in the famous ‘Canadian Caper’ and they re-opened the embassy in Tehran in 1988.
The current Canadian government changed the nation’s policy towards Iran with the shut down of the Canadian embassy in Tehran, with Canadian interests now being represented by the Italian embassy in Iran. This follows a series of decisions made by this conservative government that has been shifting Canadian foreign policy towards what seems to be a closer alignment with American interests, such as the decision for Canada to vote against Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
Nearly twenty years after the Iranian Revolution, Mohammad Khatami was elected their President with a startling 70% of the votes. Khatami had run on a platform of liberalization and reform, which included seeking increased relations with the west. However, direct contact with the United States was never achieved, as Khatami was not yet ready for talks whilst Clinton and Albright were also pursuing outreach towards Iran. Then when Khatami’s government came calling, asking the U.S. to negotiate, the Bush administration declined. The timing was never quite right.
After Khatami, a hard-line conservative by the name of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President. This stirred up controversy within Iran’s borders, but also abroad as he advocated such radical ideas as denial of the holocaust and was considered controversial due to his many other anti-western or anti-Israeli comments. Perhaps Ahmadinejad’s largest face-off with the nations of Europe and America was his unyielding support for Iran’s supposedly peaceful nuclear program, but throughout his two terms in office he did a vast amount to increase tensions with the United States, Europe, and Israel, as well as to anger many of his own countrymen.
With recent news emerging of U.S. President Barack Obama’s private letter exchange with President Rouhani we could be seeing a new dawn in U.S.-Iranian relations. Rouhani is better liked by Iran’s Supreme Leader than his controversial predecessor, and he seems to have been granted more authority by the halls of power in Tehran. This puts him in a unique position to seek common ground with the west, but he needs people to listen. Despite not meeting at the U.N. conference this week, Obama and Rouhani have already exchanged closer contact through letters than any U.S. and Iranian Presidents have in many years. Secretary of State John Kerry has also been said to be pursuing diplomatic relations with his identical in Iran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. This also comes following the recent news of hundreds of people cheering Rouhani on his arrival back home after a phone conversation with President Obama. Hopefully this momentum can continue towards finding common interests between the two nations and working towards establishing better relations. If the U.S. leads the effort, countries like Canada and Britain will almost definitely follow, and the outcome could be a safer and more stable Middle East, something which all parties involved have a vested interest in seeing.