WASHINGTON – On the 34th anniversary of the seizure by Iranian militants of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a growing number of experts here believe Washington and the Islamic Republic may be moving toward détente, if not rapprochement.
While hardline demonstrators in Tehran Monday marked the anniversary with ritual chants outside the long-abandoned embassy of “Death to America!”, U.S. negotiators and their Iranian counterparts were preparing for critical talks in Geneva later this week on the future of Iran’s nuclear programme later this week with their partners from the so-called P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany).
The talks are also likely to include a bilateral tete-a-tete between the heads of the countries’ delegations. It would be the third such session since Secretary of State John Kerry spent an hour with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on the sidelines of a P5+1 meeting at the U.N. General Assembly in New York at the end of September.
That meeting – the highest-level talks between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 Revolution – was followed by the unprecedented phone call by Barack Obama to Hassan Rouhani, as Iran’s new president was making his way to JFK airport after his highly successful four-day sojourn at the U.N.
The speed and intensity of these exchanges have clearly injected growing confidence here, and apparently in Tehran, too, that both sides are seriously committed to reaching an accord on Iran’s nuclear programme — and thus opening a new chapter in bilateral relations — despite opposition from powerful hard-line constituencies who, for now at least, have been put on the back foot.
Thus, while Monday’s demonstration celebrating the embassy seizure – which launched the 444-day “hostage crisis” that no doubt contributed to the 1980 election defeat of President Jimmy Carter and seared a deeply hostile image of Iran in the U.S. collective consciousness of most Americans – drew thousands of anti-U.S. protestors Monday, the ruling authorities had made clear in previous days that diplomacy would go forward.
Thus, banners attacking “the Great Satan” and the alleged naivete of Zarif and Rouhani that appeared last week in various parts of Tehran in advance of Monday’s anniversary were removed by municipal workers. According to a tweet by the New York Times correspondent in the Iranian capital, they also “rushed” to the demonstration to quickly dispose of its remnants after the crowd had dispersed.
More important, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had earlier suggested disapproval of Rouhani’s conversation with Obama, came out firmly in favour of the president and his team in a speech to students on the eve of the anniversary.
“No one should consider our negotiators as compromisers. They are our children and children of the revolution. They have a difficult mission, and no one must weaken an official who is doing his job,” he declared in what was widely considered here as his strongest defence of Rouhani and Zarif to date.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has taken pains ever since the last P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva Oct. 15-16 to deal with opposition to engagement both here, where it is centred in Congress where the Israel lobby exerts its greatest influence, and among its allies abroad, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Israel.
On the home front, a series of high-level meetings appears to have persuaded key senators from both parties to hold off on acting on a pending sanctions bill already passed by the House of Representatives that would punish foreign companies or countries for importing any Iranian oil until at least after this week’s talks, scheduled for Thursday and Friday.
Iran experts have warned that new sanctions would almost certainly strengthen Iran’s hard-liners, forcing a suspension in negotiations at the least. The administration also argued that such legislation, coming at a moment of growing optimism, also risked fracturing the international coalition that has so far mostly respected the sanctions regime.
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