Eleven years ago, former President George W. Bush coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” in his State of the Union address to describe North Korea, Iraq and Iran — the world’s triumvirate of nations flagrantly violating international law by aiding and abetting terrorism or hotly pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
To this day, that label pretty much sticks, but a recent charm offensive from Iran’s new president has some speculating whether the nation stands a chance of shedding its longstanding placement high atop the U.S. enemies’ list.
In his January 2002 address, Bush held little back in expressing America’s enmity and outrage toward the nation. The Islamic Republic of Iran “aggressively pursues these [nuclear]weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.”
Little has changed in the past decade – until this past summer when moderate Hassan Rowhani assumed the reins of leadership.
Rowhani took office with a decidedly conciliatory tone toward relations with the West.
HISTORIC PHONE CALL
The most recent demonstration of the potential for warmer ties with Iran came last week when President Barack Obama had a 15-minute phone conversation with Rowhani to set the groundwork for negotiations on stopping Iran’s nuclear quest. The phone call marked the first time the presidents of the two countries have spoken since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
While Republicans have attacked Obama, claiming he is more apt to “negotiate with terrorists” than with the GOP, at least, unlike the GOP, Rowhani displayed a willingness to listen and negotiate.
The president was correct in making the overture. He would be absolutely incorrect, however, to muster up too much optimism too soon about Iran’s capability of quickly maturing into a responsible player on the world stage.
Clearly, reasons for doubt persist. Despite its weakened economy, the nation has acquired strength in the Mideast region. Iran does not characterize itself as defeated. Many view its political system as among the most steadfast and resilient in the region.
In addition, any negotiations that result with Iran won’t be easy. The new president has made it clear repeatedly that he will not allow the United States or other Western nations to meddle in Iran’s ability to pursue its nuclear ambitions. He also has emphasized he will not abide by the U.N. Security Council’s demand that the nation halt its uranium-enrichment activities.
Most importantly, perhaps, Rowhani is a conservative cleric with longstanding ties to the religious hierarchy. He likely would not go too far toward offending the Islamist nation’s chief power broker, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who hinted over the weekend his disapproval of the Obama-Rowhani phone call.
Nonetheless, there is hope for optimism as long as reason and logic line the path toward talks. Ad hominem attacks, such as those by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who last week called Rowhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’’ will do little to advance hope for lasting change.
“Our hope is that there is a way forward,” Secretary of State John Kerry said over the weekend about warmer Iran-US ties. We agree with his contention that it would be “diplomatic malpractice of the worst order” not to pursue diplomatic solutions with Iran.
Kerry is also realistic. About the potential negotiations, he said, “Nothing will be based on trust. It’s going to be based on steps” in which Iran must prove it is not going to pursue a nuclear program.
Until such proof is solid, verified and lasting, America’s skepticism toward Iran will remain justified and Iran’s anchor on the international Axis of Evil will remain firmly intact.