President Barack Obama’s decision to transform the U.S. relationship with Cuba has obvious implications for the few remaining countries that lack normal diplomatic ties with the United States, especially Iran.
While there are many differences between a resource-poor island of 11 million people 90 miles off the coast of Florida and a large, oil-rich nation of 80 million that is thousands of miles from U.S. shores, regimes in both countries have based their ideological legitimacy in large part on opposing the United States.
For both, it is a complicated matter to trade potential economic and other benefits for the loss of what has been a convenient political scapegoat.
President Obama, understanding the asymmetry in relations and the inherent vulnerability of these unpopular regimes, initiated the thaw in both cases. With Cuba, he might have acted sooner if not for the prolonged imprisonment of a U.S. government contractor, Alan Gross, in 2009. Gross’s freedom and a swap of convicted spies opened the way for Obama’s announcement last week.
With Iran, he took early steps – sending letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2009 – that only began to bear fruit after multilateral sanctions started to bite and a more capable and pragmatic president, Hassan Rouhani, replaced the Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013.
Back channel diplomacy preceded the breakthrough with Cuba as well as last year’s interim nuclear accord with Iran. In both cases, Obama is using his powers as chief executive to relax economic sanctions imposed through executive orders and Congressional legislation.
To completely end the Cuba embargo would require a vote by Congress. But substantial relief can be achieved through executive action alone.
For those in the Iranian government who are pushing for a long-term nuclear deal with Washington, seeing Obama use his presidential authority to relieve the embargo against Cuba despite the vocal objection of some in Congress should increase confidence that he can waive key nuclear-related sanctions against Iran in a similar fashion.
Indeed, in his end of the year news conference on Friday, the president made clear that he would employ his executive powers on domestic and foreign policy concerns whenever he determines that is in the best interest of the American people. A deal that keeps Iran from developing nuclear weapons for another decade would certainly qualify.
Unlike the situation with Cuba, the U.S. and Iran are unlikely to swiftly normalize diplomatic relations.
No one in the Iranian government is yet talking openly about reopening the U.S. embassy in Tehran, which has been occupied by government forces since the 1979-81 hostage crisis. On the U.S. side, a major impediment is the continued detention of other U.S. hostages, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, ex-Marine Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saed Abedini.
But already, there has been a sea change in diplomatic contacts between the two countries. President Rouhani has spoken on the phone with President Obama and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif communicates routinely with Secretary of State John Kerry, as do their subordinates.
Acting in conjunction with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, the U.S. clinched the interim nuclear accord with Iran last year and has put forward a package of proposals that would offer substantial sanctions relief in return for long-term restraints on Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons.
Iranian negotiators who met with their U.S. counterparts in Geneva last week said the latest round of talks were “intense” and “very useful and helpful.” The goal is a political framework agreement by March and a final deal by the end of June.
If an agreement is reached, Iran’s Supreme Leader is likely to echo Cuban President Raul Castro and insist that the Islamic Republic has not compromised its basic principles. Khamenei will assert that it is the “Great Satan” that has buckled by accepting uranium enrichment and other elements of a full-scale nuclear program on Iranian soil.
Indeed, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Akfham issued a statement Saturday asserting that the U.S. shift on Cuba means that the “policies of isolation and sanctions imposed by the major powers against the wishes of independent nations are ineffective.”
But signing a major deal with the U.S. would have far-reaching implications beyond nonproliferation.
For the past 35 years, Iranian leaders have vilified the United States as an “arrogant” and malign actor in regional and global affairs. Much as the Castro regime has blamed its poor economic performance on the 54-year-old U.S. embargo, Iranian officials have accused successive U.S. administrations of seeking to cripple the Iranian economy to punish Iran for its “independent” policies supporting the Palestinians and other oppressed groups.
To sign a long-term compact with Washington means that Iran has chosen to trust this nefarious adversary to live up to its promises. An end to the nuclear standoff would also open the door to closer cooperation on regional crises, including Iraq and Syria.
In economic terms, U.S. companies would be slow to benefit. European businesses would be the first to return to Iran en masse, but some U.S. firms – such as Boeing – would jump at the chance to refurbish Iran’s antique civilian airplane stock.
U.S. makers of consumer goods and electronics would also find a welcome market in Iran, where American products have a special cachet. More U.S. tourists would be lured by Iran’s ancient artifacts and sophisticated modern culture.
While formal diplomatic recognition is a way off, it may be possible to send American diplomats to staff an Interests Section in Tehran to process visas and provide services for American citizens. As with Cuba, where Americans have served in such an office since 1977, that would make it easier to re-establish formal ties when the time is right.
Upgrading relations with the United States does not guarantee that authoritarian regimes will crumble or even enact major economic and political reforms. In both Cuba and Iran, change is likely to be gradual as both societies have learned through bitter experience that their violent revolutions failed to deliver on their promises of greater freedom and prosperity. But it will be harder for these regimes to blame the United States for all that is lacking in their societies and to filter out U.S. influence.
For now, it is heartening to see President Obama shake up the geopolitical order and take the initiative with such states rather than plod along enforcing a failed status quo.
As he said last week, “My presidency is entering the fourth quarter; interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.” Drawing Iran back into the international community would be interesting indeed.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.