Iran News Digest September 20, 2014

While anonymous comments about Obama’s willingness may complicate the interpretation of Washington’s announcement, it is important to note that the Reuters report and various other media treatments of the run-up to the UN gathering indicate that the Obama administration is taking a stronger-than-usual stance in nuclear negotiations with Tehran, and is insisting upon a higher degree of cooperation.

This also means that there apparently is also considerably less optimism about the talks than there had been in the past. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency quotes one US official as saying that this diminished optimism was the overall state of mind of American participants in the process as they arrived in New York. The official also declared that the status quo on Iranian nuclear enrichment is simply not acceptable, reiterating statements made earlier in the week by chief US nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman.

This openly insistent tone now seems typical of Obama administration officials, making it unlikely that the president himself is maintaining a more forgiving view of Iran’s positions. Indeed, the official who said Obama was still open to talking with Rouhani went on to say that “the choice is really Iran’s.” This may subtly indicate that Obama is not open to talks under the circumstances of Iran’s present demands and tone.

It is also possible the statement about Obama’s willingness is not based on recent commentary at all, but merely assumes the continuation of the president’s formerly open policy toward the Islamic Republic. Indeed, the unnamed official did not reference the president’s recent positions directly, but merely said “the president of the United States is well known for being open to such a meeting.” For now it remains to be seen whether this has changed.

What is already clear, though, is that things are not as they were a year ago when Hassan Rouhani had just assumed the Iranian presidency. At last year’s UN General Assembly there was much speculation that Obama and Rouhani might meet face to face, and although this did not happen, their merely speaking on the phone was considered historic. In contrast, Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution points out that this year “the mood has dampened significantly,” and “the stalemated nuclear negotiations have replaced anticipation with anxiety.”

With Iran consistently proving itself unwilling to relinquish nuclear enrichment, and also sending forth bad signs such as the arrest and imprisonment of Western journalists, the UN General Assembly may be a make or break moment for the nuclear talks, and perhaps for Iran’s entire charm offensive against the West.

Cultural Exchanges

While various activist groups have used the run-up to the UN General Assembly as an opportunity to highlight continued general abuses and abuses against religious minorities, the situation has also remained difficult, or even worsened, for women in Iran.

This week it came to light that 25-year-old Ghoncheh Ghavami had been detained without charge for well over a month, due to her protesting for women’s rights to attend volleyball games as spectators alongside men. An article at Your Middle East characterizes the volleyball issue as the latest focal point in a war between liberal Iranian citizens and the repressive clerical regime that continues to enforce rules largely barring women from public life.

The article suggests that the popularity of such sporting events may have the power to make the government think twice about enforcing some of its most severe restrictions. It points out that during this year’s World Cup, coffee shop owners and female fans openly rejected the regime’s demand that television sets be switched off and women refrain from watching the event alongside men. The article also indicates that this protest led virtually directly to the volleyball protests over which Ghavami has been imprisoned.

Furthermore, the same article likens volleyball in the Islamic Republic to table tennis in Communist China. The latter was instrumental in opening up relationships of understanding between American and Chinese citizens, and State Department communications adviser on Iran Greg Sullivan envisions a similar kind of “volleyball diplomacy” between the American and Iranian peoples.

There are certainly many opportunities for such relationships of understanding, considering that the Iranian citizenry contains a large youth population that is opposed to the clerical regime and is fond of banned Western culture. The Associated Press reported on Friday that an American arts troupe had been in attendance at a puppet festival in Iran and received a standing ovation and gifts of flowers from Iranian viewers of their performance. Such American visits to Iran are rare.

International Relations

The Iranian regime makes a concerted effort to keep Western influence at bay, and as relations arguably begin to break down again between the American and Iranian governments, Iran is apparently continuing its foreign policy shift towards very eastern partners and other adversaries of the United States. This includes simple regional trade agreements and shared projects, as well as deliberate sanctions evasion schemes and more.

ARM Info reports that Iran anticipates the completion of an electrical transmission line within 6 months, for energy exchange with Azerbaijan. The project will reportedly increase that energy exchange by some 600 megawatts. The two nations are also planning shared construction of a power plant in the border area.

Armenia Now reports on rather more complicated economic dealings between Iran and Armenia – dealings that are aimed at countering the effects of international sanctions on Iran, which have reduced trade between the two nations in recent years. Current efforts may also point to more than just expanded trade. Considering that those efforts include plans to establish an Iranian-controlled trade center inside of Armenia, they may also be aimed at securing a stronger Iranian political foothold in the country.

This interpretation is further supported by the fact that the corruption of Iranian customs officers and other officials is presently cited as a major barrier to trade relations between the two countries. To the extent that those barriers are deliberately imposed or even allowed by the Iranian government, they leave the smaller trading partner with little recourse but to accept Iranian proposals for reducing unfair costs.

Armenia Now also quotes the chair of the Armenia-Iran Trade Palace as saying that the opening of an Iranian center is an essential means for more directly reaching the Russia market. As such, it is in keeping with the apparent eastern pivot of Iranian trade policy, which could help to diminish the impact of sanctions upon most or all adversaries of the West.

And this partnership strategy is not limited to the eastern hemisphere. La Prensa indicates that relations may be strengthening between Iran and Venezuela, a traditional opponent of United States political interests in South America. Venezuela is reportedly seeking Iran’s help to develop its construction materials industry for the sake of building more homes.

The Venezuelan push for more home building has already entailed substantial contracts with companies in Iran, Russia, and China – all potential partners in an anti-Western coalition that could use trade relations among themselves to circumvent US sanctions targeting the Iranian nuclear program, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and more.