Written by Ramy Srour
On September 27, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held a phone conversation with one another for the first time. This was not just their first time. It was also the first time a U.S. president and an Iranian president had any sort of contact since 1979. But this is all very well-known, so I’m not adding any particular knowledge to the general discussion with this revelation.
See Israel’s Haaretz article on the possible significance of the phone call: http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/1.549278
Nevertheless, there are a couple of points I’d like to make with regard to this episode, despite its apparent insignificance (I mean, it was just a phone call, right? No big deal, right?) Well, not exactly. This historic event marks a major turning point, not just for U.S. foreign policy with Iran, but also for the Middle East more generally.
More than that, this event tells us something very important about diplomacy and how a simple gesture such as a phone call can send a big message such as the willingness to stop being enemies and try coming to an agreement that will satisfy everyone (with the exception, perhaps, of Israel).
This phone conversation is a major turning point in U.S. foreign policy towards Iran because a U.S. President has finally realized that the securing the U.S. national interest is more important than sticking to a certain line of policy. Yes, I do mean to say that not talking to Iran was not really in the U.S. national interest, but was simply a remnant of old practice too politically dangerous to abandon. And President Obama has had the courage to do just that: take the initiative and abandon an old practice that was actually an obstacle to U.S. interests.
Do not isolate
I believe the U.S. interest with regard to Iran should be a line of policy that enables Iran to feel appreciated and esteemed as an equal partner in international affairs. A sovereign country with legitimate interests, with specific needs, and that ought to be listened to and engaged with. Yes, engaged with and not isolated. Isolation has only led to further contempt and resentment, something that has ultimately challenged U.S. policy and strategy in the region.
U.S. soft power should also be about this: Sending the message that engagement can be a productive strategy that can lead to positive outcome for the ‘engager’ and the ‘engagee.’ U.S. strategy in a delicate region such as the Middle East should be a mixture of constructive dialogue and efforts that can improve its image in the region. What took place on September 27 between Obama and Rouhani may do just that.