It is too early to tell if Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is really willing to curtail his country’s controversial nuclear program, but there are increasing signals that the Islamic Republic could be poised to change course. In a speech at the United Nations, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, said weapons of mass destruction “have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine.” Earlier in the week, he tweeted that “Iran [is] prepared to engage in immediate time-bound and result-oriented negotiations to achieve solution to nuclear issue.” Last week, he published an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for a “win-win” solution.
He has done more than talk. A few days ago, he released 80 political prisoners, including internationally recognized human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. Add that to the fact that Rouhani’s government has called the Holocaust a crime, wished Jews “Happy Rosh Hashana” on Twitter, and heralded the reopening of Iran’s cinema guild, which had been closed by hardliners, and you get a picture of a more tolerant Iran. Perhaps the most hopeful sign yet came from Khamenei himself, who gave a speech that endorsed a policy of “heroic flexibility,” remarks that have been interpreted as giving his blessing to Rouhani’s policies of moderation.
Optimism over these unprecedented gestures is running so high that White House officials bent over backwards to try to arrange an informal encounter between Obama and Rouhani in the corridors of the United Nations. In the end, the Iranians did not take the Americans up on the offer. But that was probably less of a snub than an expression of the need to move slowly and carefully. Rouhani has to ward off criticism from hardliners in his own country. More than three decades of animosity between two countries can’t be reversed overnight.
Despite the handshake that didn’t happen, all signs point to an eagerness among some Iranian leaders to reach a deal that will lift onerous international sanctions that have left their country’s economy in shambles. American diplomats have been waiting for this moment for years. They shouldn’t squander it. It will take creative, patient, tough diplomacy to broker a deal that allows Iran to retain enough nuclear technology to save face and continue cutting-edge research, while at the same time providing enough transparency and safeguards to ensure that Iran cannot produce a weapon.
Of course, skeptics are already dismissing Iran’s outreach as an empty gesture aimed at lifting santions without giving up any real nuclear capabilities in return. Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, is even pushing for new sanctions.
That would be a mistake. Congress must support Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis by expressing its willingness to roll back sanctions if and when Iran makes sufficient concessions to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon. Reaching a deal with Iran will be tough. Let’s hope that selling that deal on Capitol Hill will not be even tougher.