The September 27 phone call between the presidents of Iran and the United States heralds a new phase in diplomacy between two countries that could lead to the dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear program and a safer Israel.
The aforementioned phone call is a groundbreaking moment in U.S.-Iranian relations, the highest level of communication between the two countries since the 1979 revolution. This phone call signals an important change in the Iranian mindset towards engagement with the United States.
Both Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have publicly supported renewed dialogue with the United States over easing sanctions. The newly elected Rouhani has been proactive in presenting a more moderate face to the world, in contrast with his volatile predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Iranian shift towards diplomacy likely stems from the increasingly significant damage done to Iran's economy by Western sanctions against its nuclear program. Sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy and negatively impacted the lives of civilians, increasing domestic pressure on Iran's government to find a way to ameliorate the sanctions.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on October 1, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged caution towards Rouhani’s recent "charm offensive." He pointed out that Rouhani shared many of his predecessor’s political views, despite his more reasonable tone.
As Netanyahu proclaimed to the General Assembly, "Ladies and gentlemen, I wish I could believe Rouhani, but I don't because facts are stubborn things, and the facts are that Iran’s savage record flatly contradicts Rouhani's soothing rhetoric."
The vast majority of Israelis share their Prime Minister's skepticism towards diplomatic engagement with Iran. A recent poll showed that 84% of Israelis do not believe diplomacy will be effective in preventing Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.
Israel and Iran have long had an antagonistic relationship. Ahmadinejad aggravated that relationship, often calling for the "annihilation of the Zionist regime." For good reason, Iran's pursuit of a nuclear program raised significant security fears in Israel.
While Netanyahu has appeared skeptical about the value of diplomatic engagement with Iran, he stated that he did not explicitly oppose it. Instead, he has encouraged the U.S. to hold firm on sanctions until concrete progress has been made, stating on October 6 that the current sanctions "are a moment away from achieving their goal ... The sanctions must not be eased before reaching the goal of dismantling Iran's enrichment capability — the ability to produce nuclear weapons."
However, the explicit purpose of these sanctions were not only to prevent Iran from obtaining the necessary materials to develop nuclear weapons but also to "induce Iran to engage constructively, through discussions with the United States, China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Russia in the E3+3 process, to fulfill its nonproliferation obligations."
By this measure, Iran’s recent diplomatic overtures prove that the sanctions have made progress towards their goal. They have convinced Iran’s political leadership that it must address Western concerns about their nuclear program through diplomacy.
At the same time, it is not clear that the U.S. and Iran will be able to agree on the outcomes necessary for the U.S. to ease the sanctions in the latest round of talks, beginning October 15 in Geneva. Iran may not be prepared to accept reductions in its nuclear program to the level that would satisfy the international community, particularly Israel and the U.S.
However, the importance of these diplomatic overtures should not be understated. Despite suggestions of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, it is generally agreed that these strikes would only delay Iranian progress towards achieving nuclear weapons capability. Only diplomacy can convince Iran to fully abandon pursuit of nuclear weapons. Should the United States successfully convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear program, Israel would clearly reap significant security benefits.