by Jim Lobe
Since Obama’s announcement last week that he will normalize relations with Cuba, a number of commentators have analyzed what impact this might have on US-Iranian ties, particularly with respect to the ongoing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.
Aside from neoconservatives, such as Elliott Abrams, and other hawks, like Lindsey Graham and John McCain—who predictably deplored the move and worried that Obama’s move portends US surrender at the negotiating table—the Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller was one of the first to do a more thoughtful analysis of what it might mean for Iran policy. In his post, entitled “After Cuba Comes Iran,” Miller argued that, despite the key differences between the two countries, Obama’s decision to normalize ties with Havana “should be a clear sign of where he might like to go with Iran on the nuclear issue in coming months.”
Paul Pillar, a regular contributor to the National Interest, also alluded to the possibility that the Cuba initiative, coupled with Obama’s more assertive policy shifts on immigration and climate change, could indeed indicate where Obama wants to go with Iran and expressed the hope that these moves will encourage him to inject into the US negotiating position the flexibility that will be needed to conclude an agreement.
In another important contribution published by Voice of America on Tuesday, the Atlantic Council’s Iran expert, Barbara Slavin argued what I’ve been thinking (but hadn’t put pen to paper) for the past week:
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.
In my opinion, Obama’s willingness to make a bold foreign policy move that is certain to provoke heated opposition from not insignificant domestic constituencies (that are also overrepresented in Congress) should—contrary to the narratives put out by the neoconservatives and other hawks—actually strengthen the Rouhani-Zarif faction within the Iran leadership who are no doubt arguing that Obama is serious both about reaching an agreement and forging a new relationship with the Islamic Republic.
I asked Farideh Farhi—whose analysis of internal Iranian politics and foreign policy is, as far as LobeLog (among many others) is concerned, the best available—about this Wednesday. She replied by email as follows:
I think Obama did himself a lot of good in changing the perception of him in Iran, as well as the rest of the world, as a weak and indecisive president. I think that perception just received a beating and will help those in Tehran who are making the case that Obama is serious and can deliver on substantial sanctions relief or that he is the best person to deal with (given the fact that he is relieved of election pressures). To be sure, all this will be focused on nuclear negotiations and not normalization of relations that developed in the Cuba situation, but if it happens, it will certainly be a breakthrough that may gradually open the path towards normalization.
Farideh pointed in particular to the official reaction by Iran’s Foreign Ministry to Obama’s Cuba announcement as offering some indication about how it was being interpreted in Tehran. That statement emphasized the president’s acknowledgment that more than 50 years of isolation and sanctions against Cuba had not worked and “I do not believe we can continue doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.” Obama’s remarks about having learned “from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos,” according to Farideh, were also likely to be seen favorably in Tehran as Obama’s repudiation of “regime change.” (Related points were made in another analysis, “If It’s True on Cuba, It’s True on Iran,” published in the Huffington Post by Trita Parsi and Ryan Costello shortly after Obama’s announcement.)
I would add that the fact that the Castro brothers, who have “resisted” Yanqui imperialism and “global arrogance” for even longer than Tehran, are now willing to establish a new relationship with their own “Great Satan” may also count for something in the internal debate that swirls around Ayatollah Khamenei’s office. If, after all, revolutionary Cuba is willing to turn the page with their historic nemesis—defiance of which has largely defined Cuba’s out-sized standing and status in the world—shouldn’t hardcore revolutionaries around Khamenei at least consider the idea, if not of normalisation (which appears out of the question for the moment), then at least moving with greater confidence toward some rapprochement?
That view is shared by Kenneth Katzman, the senior analyst of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Affairs at the Congressional Research Service. “I think we should also not minimize how the Cuba rapprochement might play in the inner counsels in Tehran,” he said in an email. “Surely, Rouhani and Zarif can now go to the Supreme Leader and say ‘The Castro brothers are at least as distrustful of the United States as you are, and they were able to reach a deal with the United States. Why wouldn’t you do the same??”
Of course, opponents of Obama’s normalization of ties with Cuba will try to rally a Republican-led Congress behind their efforts to restrain Obama’s efforts by, among other measures, denying funding for an embassy, refusing to confirm a nominee as ambassador, and introducing legislation designed to constrain the president’s authority to waive or lift certain sanctions or further ease the trade embargo. And, if they succeed, particularly with respect to the sanctions issue, there’s no doubt that such action will be used by hard-liners in Tehran to argue that Obama lacks the power to follow through on any promises he makes about lifting sanctions and related concessions, in a nuclear deal.
But it’s pretty clear that Obama is determined to fight such actions, and it’s most unlikely that anti-Castro diehards like Marco Rubio and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will be able to gather enough Democratic supporters to overcome a presidential veto. Indeed, given the strong support for Obama’s action from such quarters as the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Foreign Trade Council, and various agricultural lobby groups whose members are eager to significantly increase their exports to Cuba, normalization’s foes may find it more difficult than they anticipate to rally a large majority of Republicans behind them despite the party leadership’s determination to deny Obama any kind of foreign policy success.
At the same time, any serious effort by the anti-Castro forces on Capitol Hill will pose some difficult questions for key players on Iran, especially the Israel lobby and the various groups associated with it. The Cuba and Israel lobbies have worked closely together for decades—their common interests have converged perfectly in the persons of the outgoing chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former House Foreign Committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. And now is the moment when the Cuba lobby needs all the help it can get. Moreover, if the leadership of the Israel lobby believes that normalization with Cuba will make a nuclear deal and rapprochement with Iran substantially more likely, will it decide that this is a fight worth fighting? Of course, the leadership is not monolithic, especially on a question that, at least on the face of it, is so far removed from Israel itself, and it will be very difficult to mobilize all but the lobby’s most right-wing constituents behind preventing normalization with Cuba. But it will be fascinating to watch.
Photo: US President Barack Obama talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani of during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)