President Obama spoke carefully and constructively about Iran in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly. He noted that “suspicion runs too deep” for repairing a relationship “overnight.” Teheran and Washington have been here before, in the late 1990s, Iran seemingly ready to embrace a degree of openness and engagement. Then, a handful of years later, the divisive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surfaced.
Now Hassan Rouhani has moved into the presidency, and the overtures have been clear enough. On Tuesday, before Obama, Rouhani and other world leaders began speaking, Javad Zarif, the new Iranian foreign minister pointed to a “historic opportunity.” Rouhani has talked about “constructive engagement” with the United States. A week ago, Iran released more than 90 political prisoners.
So President Obama rightly reciprocated, telling the gathered nations that “I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.” Zarif has announced that later this week he will meet with representatives of the 5+1 Group negotiating with Iran over the future of its nuclear program. John Kerry, the secretary of state, will be at the table.
The framework of an agreement long has been plain. The Iranian economy, and its people, have suffered under a painful regime of trade and financial sanctions. To gain relief, Iran would make concessions in the development of its nuclear program, along the lines of limiting the enrichment of uranium and agreeing to an intrusive arrangement for inspections. The exchange might well be joined by an exploration of how far Iran would become engaged with the international community, perhaps, say, playing a helpful role in Syria.
Weigh the words of Rouhani and, more important, Ayatollah Khamenei, and you find distinct limits to Iranian flexibility. The regime won’t change fundamental aspects of its character. Yet the goal of diplomacy in this instance isn’t fast friends. Rather it is an attempt to build something better than the toxic relationship of three decades.
For Washington, that involves coming to terms with the reality of a deal that works for both sides. Israel wants Iran to give up all capacity to enrich uranium. That isn’t going to happen, international accords allowing as much for Iran. Better to rely on the capacity of other restraints to keep the nuclear program in check.
Chances are, this opportunity won’t remain open for long. In part, it is the product of the victory Rouhani won in June, many Iranians frustrated with the direction of the country, the hardliners examining how best to secure the future of the Islamic Republic. A deft American hand is required to see what is possible. It may be nothing in the end, or something that could alter dramatically the landscape of the Middle East.