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Written by Tawab Malekzad & Ramy Srour

As Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the U.S.) prepare to head to Geneva this week to discuss Iran’s nuclear program for the second time in less than a month, U.S. policymakers need to realize the opportunities for rapprochement that this round of talks will offer. But at the same time, they need to recognize that the road to diplomatic reconciliation with Teheran is not free of obstacles, and that a careful diplomatic approach is what is most needed right now.

On November 4, Iran celebrated the 34th anniversary of the taking of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran in what is still called “Death to America Day.” Anti-American sentiments have somewhat waned over the past weeks, as reports noted that some anti-American posters had been taken down during the run-up to the November 4 celebrations.

However, while Iranian diplomats were busy negotiating with their western counterparts last month, hardliners inside Iran were engaging in chanting strong, and at times hostile anti-American slogans. At the same time, anti-American posters also suddenly appeared in the streets of Teheran.

Domestic obstacles

According to a recent report by the Associated Press, these posters were the work of those hardliners, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who have so far opposed President Rouhani’s pursuit of better relations with the U.S. and the west.

Last week, Rouhani ordered these anti-American posters to be taken down, and eventually they were removed Oct. 27, according to the state-run news agency IRNA.

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One of the posters that appeared in the streets of Teheran showed a U.S. and an Iranian diplomat sitting at a negotiating table, with the U.S. diplomat partially dressed as a soldier. The poster attacks the honesty of U.S. negotiators [Photo credit: khanetarrahan.ir]

But that was not the end of the story. The same IRGC, which supposedly also funded the hostile posters, declared that the widespread anti-U.S. chants and slogans that had reverberated across the country, would continue, regardless of the president’s requests to put an end to them.

These recent events have made two things clear for skeptics in the international community. First, Rouhani’s domestic policies suggest that he is serious about weakening the hostile sentiments within Iran, in an effort to facilitate the negotiations with the west.

At the same time, it appears that an internal division may be taking place in the country. On one hand, there are members of the military and other hardliners who would like to maintain the hard policies toward the west. On the other, President Rouhani and his supporters are trying to soften the country’s stance toward the west, primarily in order to keep his promise of improving Iran’s economy.

And this is where the U.S. should focus most of its efforts. U.S. officials should engage with Rouhani and provide Iran with some sanctions relief in order not to lose their negotiating party. A step toward improving the Iranian economy would not only strengthen the president’s domestic support, but would also increase it, as more people will be likely to shift away from the hardliners.

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The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) wield a considerable amount of power within Iran [Photo credit: The National Review]

International challenge

As the domestic situation gets increasingly complicated, however, the international environment is not much better.

Although hardline sentiments are still overwhelmingly strong in a country that is going through one of its most delicate ideological transitions, the newly-elected president has made it clear that his administration will do all it can to mend its ties with the west. Rouhani’s appearance at the UN General Assembly in September and the optimistic talks in Geneva last month have raised hopes and expectations among European and U.S. policymakers as to the promising prospect of peaceful relations with Iran.

Nevertheless, only a few days before the second, and much-expected, round of talks kicks off this week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei came out with a statement that left most, if not completely, at least a little dumbfounded.

Referring to the State of Israel, last Sunday his twitter account read: US takes heed of Zionists, and they have to do that, but we had always said that it is considered an illegal and bastard regime.

Now, regardless of the motives behind the tweet, one thing is clear: the message is going to complicate things for the Iranian negotiators meeting with their counterparts this week in Geneva.

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it very clear that Israel opposes any solution that will not guarantee a completely non-nuclear Iran [Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post]

Things will get even more complicated for the U.S. administration, which has so far welcomed Iran’s charm offensive, while reassuring its allies in Israel that Jerusalem’s security concerns were at the forefront of the U.S. diplomatic strategy.

Israel’s reaction to Khamenei’s message was quick and unambiguous. The head of the country’s National Security Council, Yaakov Amidror said on Sunday that Iran is still a “clear existential threat” that should be removed, if not with diplomacy, then “by other means.”

Such a response could only be expected. But what is preoccupying is that if the closest U.S. ally decides to sabotage the negotiations, there is very little that the P5+1 and Iran will actually be able to achieve.

Negotiations could be the only option

The fact that Rouhani won the elections with a clear majority of the votes indicates that a large proportion of the Iranian population supports him. The U.S. should take this opportunity and actively seek to improve its relationship with Teheran, while not allowing the anti-American sentiments to negatively affect this process.

A partial sanctions relief will enable the two countries to restore their relationship and help move the negotiations forward.

The recently initiated diplomatic dialogue between the two countries is going to be an uphill battle, not only because of internal challenges faced by Rouhani, but also because of the international pressure caused by the legacy of his predecessors.

Israeli officials have become increasingly skeptical primarily because of Ahmadinejad’s legacy of unwarranted threats. The U.S. will need to actively engage with its Israeli allies in order to reassure them that nothing less than a non-nuclear Iran will be the acceptable outcome. This week’s talks in Geneva are likely to reinforce the objective of a non-nuclear Iran.

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