Hopes rise of end to 40 year international feud
Controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme has loomed over international politics for years. Now, the country’s new president says it could be solved within months. Can he be trusted?
Last night one of the most extraordinary conversations in modern diplomatic history took place in New York. The new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a pariah state and the focus of some of the fiercest disputes in recent history, talked ‘cordially’ for 15 minutes with US President Barack Obama. It is the first such encounter for 30 years.
Among the global leaders gathered at the UN General Assembly, hopes were high that the icy relations between Iran and the USA could begin to thaw. The great Middle Eastern power, with its nuclear arsenal, its repressive laws and its constant and outspoken opposition to all things Western, has long been considered a villain in the West. Now, its president appears to be speaking a language of reason.
It is a remarkable turnaround. Iran’s previous president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust and threatened to ‘wipe Israel off the map’; throughout his tenure he refused to compromise on Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. Only a year ago the bitterness between Iran and Israel was reaching such a level that some commentators began to fear of a nuclear war in the Middle East.
But Iran’s new leader, Hassan Rouhani, is markedly different in style. Elected this June, the self-proclaimed moderate has agreed to negotiations with America and hinted that he is willing to rebuild his country’s relationship with the West.
Rouhani pointedly declared that the Holocaust was a real and ‘reprehensible’ event. And, crucially, he called for ‘time-bound, results-oriented talks’ with the USA. Within six months, Rouhani insisted, an agreement could be reached to end the nuclear stand-off.
In recent decades, Iran’s public image has been dominated by its hard-line leaders. But beneath that facade there is a thriving culture, with one of the most highly respected film industries in the world and a rich history that stretches back over 4,000 years.
So what are the lessons to be learned from its remarkable turnaround?
Sanctions or bust?
Many powerful voices in America, such as the former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, are making the case that it was years of economic sanctions imposed by Washington and supported by many other Western countries that gradually forced Iran’s belligerent clerics to their knees. There is no doubt that the Iranian economy has been slowly strangled by these restrictions.
Rubbish, say others, especially some academics and economists. Sanctions never work. The real reason for the change is the rising tide of young people in Iran who do not like restrictions to their political freedoms, do not have anything against Israel and who actually like America and the West.
- Which foreign culture do you find most interesting? Why?
- ‘A good negotiator must trust nobody.’ Do you agree?
- On a map, try to guess roughly where in the world Iran is located. Then look up the real answer. How close did you come?
- Choose an Iranian poem, painting or period of history and make a short presentation about it.
Some People Say...
“If countries were known only by their leaders, every nation on Earth would be hated.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Is Iranian culture really so special? I’ve never heard much about it.
- Yes, it is! Persia (an old name for the territory that is now Iran) was home to several of the greatest cultures of the ancient world, including one of the first civilisations in human history. Its literary tradition, with poets such as Hafez, Saadi and Rumi, is world famous. Last year an Iranian film calledA Separation won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.
- Maybe I’ll check it out. But what about the whole nuclear thing: should I be worried?
- You certainly shouldn’t fear imminent nuclear war. But Iran is a powerful regional presence with control of a huge proportion of the world’s oil supplies. If it had a working relationship with the USA, the world would be a more stable place.
- Islamic Republic
- Ever since the Revolution of 1972 Iran has been a theocracy, run by religious leaders in strict accordance with the principles of Islam. The Iranian president is powerful, but ultimate authority rests with the Supreme Leader: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
- UN General Assembly
- The main decision-making body of the United Nations, in which representatives from all the world’s states have a seat. Its yearly sessions open in September.
- Nuclear programme
- Iran is known to have several enrichment facilities in which the element uranium is converted into a state fit either for generating energy or making bombs. Iranian leaders insist it is the former use for which their nuclear programme is intended, but they have been secretive about many details and are widely assumed to be developing atomic bombs.