The Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, is reportedly set to visit the Islamic Republic of Iran in April. She would be one of the few high-ranking Western political figures to make such a visit over the last three decades.
Her trip comes at a time when there are signs of a possible breakthrough between Iran and the United States over the Iranian nuclear program, which could end Western sanctions against Iran and result in the opening up of Iran for wider economic and trade ties with the West. It also underlines the fact that without Iranian help, the US and its allies may not be able to defeat Islamic State (IS) or play a constructive role in resolving the Iraqi and Syrian conundrums. If Minister Bishop's visit could enforce the mutually conciliatory postures that President Barack Obama and his reformist Iranian counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani, have adopted, that would certainly enhance Australia's credibility on the international scene and place it in a favourable position for accessing the Iranian market and investing in post-sanctions Iran.
Thirty-six years have elapsed since the Iranian revolution that marked an unprecedented popular uprising, the first of its kind in modern Middle Eastern history. Materialising before the advent of social media, it was indeed a show of people's power. It resulted in the transformation of Iran from a pro-Western monarchy to an Islamic Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, who established an Islamic system of governance, with an anti-US and anti-Israeli posture – a system that continues to frame Iranian politics and society.
However, the Islamic Republic's journey has been one of trials and tribulations. The Republic has endured a number of difficult events, ranging from its early years of revolutionary turmoil and a long and bloody war imposed on it by the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, to persistent US-led sanctions, which have since 2012 been widened and deepened, taking a heavy financial and economic toll on the Iranian people.
In spite of its domestic and foreign policy complications, the Islamic Republic has proved to be a relative island of stability in an increasingly turbulent zone. It has been more resilient than some observers and analysts initially predicted.
With the presidency of moderate and pragmatist Rouhani since August 2013, the Islamic Republic has entered a new phase in its evolution. Backed by Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, as Iran's supreme political and religious leader, President Rouhani has unfolded a serious agenda of domestic and foreign policy reforms. He has vigorously sought to lift his oil-rich but economically moribund and externally sanctioned nation to a higher level, in order to improve the living conditions of its people.
Yet, he is fully aware that this cannot be achieved unless his country adopts a foreign policy approach, especially towards the United States, that could end foreign sanctions and Iran's isolation. In response to President Obama's long-standing overtures, Rouhani's leadership has engaged Washington in serious negotiations for a settlement of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. It has done so through multilateral and bilateral talks, which has resulted in a thaw in US-Iranian relations for the first time since the advent of Iran's Islamic government. Concurrently, it has sought to foster better relations with Iran's neighbours, especially the Arab countries in the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, and to assure them, along with the rest of the world, that Iran's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Meanwhile, Iran's regional interests have never been closer to those of its Arab and non-Arab neighbours and the United States than now in the face of growing extremism, as displayed by the common enemy of IS, which has been threatened large swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territories. The regional climate is now more favourable than ever for regional cooperation as a foundation of long-term stability.
A major breakthrough in US-Iranian relations would help President Rouhani attract foreign investment and high technology – critical to implementing his reform agenda. It could equally enable President Obama to secure Iranian assistance in empowering the US to play a constructive role in resolving some of the serious regional problems. On a wider scale, it could also carry the potential for bringing stability and security to a region that has seen enough turmoil and human suffering.
Whatever the future, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the US stand at a crossroads. They have an unprecedented opportunity to revitalise their relationship for mutual benefit. Alternatively, if they miss this opportunity due to either domestic opposition in Iran or in the United States or in the region, from Israel in particular, there may not be another occasion for a long time, especially if President Obama is succeeded by a Republican. However, given the encouraging signs, based on the factors of mutual need and vulnerability, there is reason to be optimistic.
Amin Saikal is distinguished professor and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of the forthcoming book Iran at the Crossroads.