It is right to be cautious about Iran's post-Ahmadinejad willingness to negotiate on the nuclear issue. And while a combination of the sanctions regime and the election of Hassan Rouhani as president has enabled negotiations to occur, the West should be alert to where Iran sees itself positioned regionally at present. As Vali Nasr points out: 'America would be naïve to assume that Iran is negotiating from a position of weakness.'
Still, momentous geopolitical shifts start with small steps, and President Obama is right to explore any realistic opening.
Of course, not all regional players are comfortable with Washington and Tehran speaking to each other.[fold]
Israel has been the loudest protester. Having arrested a Belgian-Iranian on 11 September on charges of spying for Iran, Israel then announced that the suspect was found with photos of the US embassy in Tel Aviv in his possession. This announcement came two days after Obama's historic phone call with President Rouhani. Then Prime Minister Netanyahu accused Rouhani of being a 'wolf in sheep's clothing' in his speech at the UN, although he later came unstuck with his Iranian clothing analogies, taken to task by Iranian youth for claiming in an interview on the BBC's Persian service that Iranians were banned from wearing jeans.
The Gulf states are also unhappy with a possible US-Iran rapprochement. They were expecting a military strike against Iran's key Arab ally (Syria) a few weeks ago, only to see Russia broker a deal that saves Damascus from military action and then the presidents of the US and Iran speaking directly for the first time in 30 years. This was allegedly one of the reasons why the Saudis abruptly, for the first time and without explanation, cancelled their speech at the UN General Assembly last week. Gulf media has been less than enthusiastic about the Iran-US talks.
If stripped of the Iranian bogeyman (whether it be valid or not), many of the Gulf states fear, at best, some form of 'relevance deprivation syndrome' and at worst, some unwanted attention from Western interest groups into their failure to undertake any substantive political reforms while other Arab states are being pressured to do so.
Almost as interesting as the delicate diplomatic dance between Tehran and Washington will be the reactions of the regional players to the same.
Photo by Flickr user Asia Society.