Last Sunday Iranian President Rouhani suggested that the Iran would be open to a prisoner exchange with the US (warning: autoplay of CNN’s interview at the link). President Rouhani’s suggestion was not quite straightforward. He stated that should the US release Iranians in US custody (Iranian prisoners), then Iran would consider releasing the three Americans currently being held in Iran. President Rouhani’s statement is interesting because shortly after the conclusion of the P5+1 negotiations, Supreme Religious Authority Ayatullah Khameini stated there would be no further diplomacy/no opening to the US and the West.
There appear to be two dynamics at work here. The first is that Ayatullah Khameini is playing bad cop and President Rouhani is playing good cop. Not only does this make sense as an external diplomatic posture, but it has the advantage of Ayatullah Khameini publicly saying what needs to be said to keep the hardliners in line. Given the way that Iran is structured, with all the real power going on behind the opaque facade of representative government in the presidency and majlis (parliament), all the real power and authority is with Ayatullah Khameini and not with President Rouhani. The bottom line is that President Rouhani would not make the overture, no matter how nuanced, without some measure of support from the Supreme Religious Authority.
The second dynamic, which is the real follow on, second order effect is that Iranian leadership is signaling that it is interested, even if its in a limited way, for follow on diplomatic efforts. One of the more under remarked on realities in regards to Iran is that it really wants out of its pariah status and the ability to exist within the global system just like every other nation-state. This desire stems from several sources. Not least of which is national pride. The desire to get out from under the debilitating sanctions regime helped to get Iran to the table for the P5+1 negotiations. The related desire to be accepted back into the community of nations will continue to drive the Iranian government to seek opportunities for engagement.
The real question is will US leadership, both current and future, recognize the opportunities that they are being presented with and seize them. Or, as was the case during the Bush 43 Administration, rebuff them out of hand due to ideological intransigence and mind numbingly, moronically stupid historical analogies.* The fastest way to get Iran to change is to actually bring it in from the cold. The ability for social, cultural, professional, scientific, and economic exchanges to transform not just the US-Iranian relationship, but also Iranian expectations of their own government and society has a lot of potential. And this is true at both the state to state and individual to individual level. Failure to recognize the challenge that the US has been presented with and the potential to turn it into a series of opportunities would be strategic malpractice. Of course we have seen that movie before in Anbar in 2004 and 2005 with the Anbar tribes, as well as in 2003 and 2005-2006 with Iranian diplomatic overtures through both the Swiss diplomatic cut out and Major General Suleimani in Afghanistan.
* As was the case with the initial offers from the Anbari sheikhs, the deep thinkers of the Bush 43 Administration believed that the Iraqi sheikhs were NAZIs as are the Iranians. And, of course, everything is always Munich in even though Munich in
1939 1938 was a decent deal because it bought the British time to rearm and rebuild their military, as well as prepare itself for interstate war.