Joyce Karam/Iran unlikely to be another Cuba for Obama


Iran unlikely to be another Cuba for Obama
Joyce Karam /Al Arabiya
Thursday, 18 December 2014

Obama’s historic announcement yesterday ending five decades of isolation with Cuba and preparing for full normalization with Havana left many in the Middle East wondering: will Iran be next? While this is a natural juxtaposition given the amount of time and attention that Obama has allocated for reaching out to the regime in Tehran, it remains a very unlikely hypothesis in terms of realpolitik in light of Iran’s behavior regionally and the current trajectory of the nuclear negotiations.

It is true that both Cuba and Iran share a history of animosity towards the United States, but the Castro regime offers a very different model and prospects than that of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his revolutionary guard. These differences chart two separate courses for Cuba and Iran regionally and with the U.S., promising more openness for Havana in contrast with more defiance from Tehran.

Khamenei vs. Castro
The end of the 55-year isolation policy on Cuba did not happen in a vacuum. The cold war that drifted Havana away from its powerful neighbor is bygone, and the Castro regime today is no longer the Communist hub of the Western Hemisphere. Cuba’s regional behavior, including its openness and increased ties with the European Union, Brazil and Latin American organizations since early 1990s puts it in a very distant light than Tehran’s.

“It is more likely to see U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry smoking a Cuban cigar in Havana than celebrating over a nuclear agreement in Vienna”
Cuba’s improved trajectory in the Western hemisphere has in many ways prompted a review of its ties with the United States, while Iran’s deteriorating relations in the Middle East increases its isolation. Havana’s participation in several regional summits starting with the Ibero-American summits in 1991 and normalizing ties with all of the countries in Latin America stands at complete odds with Iran’s path in the Middle East. From Syria to Iraq to Yemen to Bahrain, Iran is operating with a very different playbook than Cuba’s, defying its neighbors by relying on sectarian militias to advance its agenda. This tension has resulted in Iran’s exclusion of major summits on the Middle East, including the two Geneva summits on Syria, and it has complicated to a great deal Obama’s effort to improve relations with Tehran. It is no coincidence that the U.S. president pressures regional players such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE to try to improve their relations with Iran, as such an outcome is necessary for any comprehensive overhaul of relations between Washington and Tehran.

Another major difference between Cuba and Iran is a long determination on the part of the international community that the embargo on Havana is a bad idea, while the sanctions on the Iranian regime still enjoy full support. The Cuba embargo has been voted down 17 times at the United Nations General Assembly and Havana’s growing ties with the European Union, China and Russia broke the isolation policy. Compare that with the eight U.N. resolutions adopted by the Security Council and slapping sanctions on Iran. Cuba after all is not a nuclear power, and its ambitious plans with the help of Soviet Union to construct power reactors collapsed with the collapse of the latter.

Different ‘ideological markers’
During the last round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna and which ended without a framework agreement, the French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud astutely remarked on Twitter: “For Iran, reaching an agreement with the west would be the loss of the last ideological marker of the revolution, foundation of the regime.” This ideological marker sets for Iran a very different path than that of Cuba’s and blocks efforts for full normalization with the West.

The Khamenei playbook is designed as such today to implement a delicate balance with the West, agreeing to discuss nuclear matters, end the hostile rhetoric of Ahmadinejad, but without letting go of the same old anti-Westen pillars of the Islamic revolution in 1979. Giving up on these pillars and normalizing relations with the West will be equivalent to ending the revolution in Iran. This is gradually happening in Cuba, but the Iranian regime is nowhere near that point. Hence, Obama’s four letters to Khamenei went unanswered, the language threatening to abolish Israel has not changed and the FBI warned last week of Iranian efforts to hack U.S. companies.

Politically, the failure of the November 24 talks to even achieve joint principles has significantly lowered the expectations in Washington on reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal. A Western source with knowledge of the talks summed it up as such: “Khamenei does not want a deal, we will try to add pressure to reach such outcome later but it is very far from certain.” This stands in contrast with the negotiations between Obama and Castro, leading to incremental steps easing travel and money transfers three years ago and a Castro-Obama handshake during Nelson’s Mandela funeral in December of last year.

The Cuba-Iran comparison falls apart when looking at their respective behavior regionally and vis-a-vis the United States. At this stage, it is more likely to see U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry smoking a Cuban cigar in Havana than popping champagne over a nuclear agreement in Vienna. For Obama, Cuba is the closest he will get to Richard Nixon’s moment in China in 1972, absent of a dramatic change inside Iran and its powerful ruling elite.