Peace With Iran? 5 Things Obama Should Have Done to Make History at the UN

As world leaders gathered at the 2013 meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, all eyes were focused on the interaction — hot or cold — between Iran and the U.S.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has shown what appears to be a sincere willingness to discuss mutual problems in earnest. As such, President Obama had a historic opportunity to break the decades old icy relationship between the adversaries and start down the long road to reconciliation. Unfortunately, Obama didn't do all he could have to make this happen, and instead should have followed these five steps toward a new age of relations with Iran.

1. The Handshake

Obama should have gone in for the handshake with Rouhani. In fact, he should've gone for the perfectly perpendicular shake, if not slightly tilted so as to show just a bit of acquiescence, which is believed to elicit a greater sense of trust and power from the receiver. Not only is a handshake a sign of good will, but it publicly makes all stars of both presidents while marginalizing more extremist elements in both countries' political arenas. It would put pressure on Ayatollah Khamenei to go that extra mile for some type of reconciliation, and it would castrate hard right members of the Israel lobby from pushing for harsher tactics against our Persian adversary. Let's not forget that the two countries have not had leaders that spoke to one another directly in 36 years, and a step of this magnitude — however symbolic — would have been enormous.

2. Tea Time

Last night, after both presidents had addressed the assembly, Obama should have invited Rouhani for a private meeting over tea. Not only is tea a symbolic gesture of hospitality towards a guest in Iranian culture, but a meeting between the two leaders away from the fanfare and calculating eyes of the heads of the rest of the world could've broken down significant barriers in beginning a dialog of mutual respect, trust, and empathy — the hallmarks of all great leaders. After all, President Obama's speech before the Assembly yesterday was more of a castigation than it was an olive branch, although he did manage to accept Iran's use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes and his tone seemed a bit less dogmatic than last year.

With any luck, Obama would have gained valuable insight into Khamenei's current mood towards the West, and if Rouhani is who he seems to be, he could operate as a valuable conduit that brings the countries closer together.

3. Ongoing Talks

A schedule must be agreed to in order to continue such good will into the future. Both countries' leadership accepts the fact that 34 years of ill will cannot be mended over night. However, Rouhani is the lynch pin towards the alleviation of  many issues that are keeping both sides from reconciliation, and a steady building of momentum on top of the speeches and meetings yesterday is vital. With any luck, the two leaders will start a basic framework to deal with differences as well as vital areas of cooperation. Frequent subsequent meetings should be used to discuss a way forward in Syria — along with other interested parties like Russia — as well as lighter topics such as cooperation in Afghanistan in which trust could be built on lower levels so that the nuclear "elephant in the room" can be broached at some point soon as well. The nuclear issue has been a nonstarter, and other trust building measures should be implemented before this topic is harped upon in typical U.S. fashion.

4. Relief

Provided that the three previous steps took place, and over the next few months ongoing talks have born measurable trust and respect, the Obama administration must alleviate some sanctions on Iran in order to cement U.S. resolve towards reconciliation. This crucial step puts the ball firmly in Iran's court; they can either respond in kind, such as pleasing the international community with breakthrough transparency on its nuclear plans, or do nothing, which itself would frame Iran as the problem in a situation that even skeptical world powers would have to address more firmly.

5. Maintenance

Assuming Iran makes the critical and difficult decision to trust the U.S. once again, U.S. leadership must maintain such trust in order to appease the understandable skepticism of Iranian leadership. If relief works as described above, the U.S. must maintain a delicate balance of challenging Iran to live up to its part of any bargain while not sounding too dictatorial in its demands. Further, the U.S. should appease any worries Iranian leadership has with confidence building measures as necessary, but not in disproportionate amount.

As Iran and the U.S. continue down this road, Iran will continue to shed the sanctions albatross hanging from its neck while the U.S. can begin its pivot to Asia in earnest, which over the long run is far more important to the nation's future.

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Joseph Sarkisian

Joseph graduated with a Master of Science in international relations from the University of Massachusetts Boston and was an intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC. He completed his BA at Arizona State University in political science as well as studied Arabic language, terrorism/counterterrorism, and religion. Joseph also lived in Egypt where he studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo in 2007. Joseph was the Secretary of the Executive Committee for the University of Massachusetts Graduate Student Government, a teaching assistant in his department, and teaches a class on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. His main areas of interest are the Af/Pak region, Iran, Syria, and other current foreign policy issues.

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