There is a new opportunity to reset the troubled relations between Iran and the United States, which has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
After years of relentless tension, reflected in the fiery speeches of Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN’s podium, Iran’s new pragmatic president, Hassan Rouhani, promises to be a key instigator of a new leaf in US-Iran relations. As a tangible sign of good will ahead of his UN visit Tuesday, Rouhani released 80 political prisoners on Monday, and thus confirmed his campaign promise to “expand personal liberties and respect human rights.”
With the important blessing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, Rouhani has “full authority” to negotiate with the West on the nuclear standoff. The nuclear file is now in the hands of Iran’s US-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, known for his skillful role in post-Taliban mediation in Afghanistan. Calling for “mutual respect” and confidence-building in US-Iran relations, Zarif is the ideal candidate to push the chariot of US-Iran diplomacy forward and achieve a breakthrough in the deadlocked nuclear talks.
With respect to Syria, Iran’s strategic ally in the region, Rouhani and Zarif have forcefully condemned the use of chemical weapons and have endorsed the US-Russia agreement on Syrian chemical weapon disarmament while expressing interest in participating in the Geneva process aimed at a ceasefire in Syria.
With the 2014 departure of the United States from Afghanistan rapidly approaching, and Iraq mired in sectarian violence second only to Syria, the stakes are too high and the pool of shared concerns between Tehran and Washington too big to ignore the need for direct dialogue. Both Tehran and Washington back the same political horses in Kabul and Baghdad, and are commonly concerned about the growing narco-traffic through the porous Iranian borders. Henceforth, it is necessary to hold an earnest US-Iran dialogue on a host of issues, including nuclear, security, regional, and human rights.
With respect to the nuclear standoff, Rouhani has already initiated a number of unilateral steps such as scheduling a fresh meeting with the UN’s atomic agency to finalize an agreement aimed at greater nuclear transparency as well as access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to various facilities in Iran. He has reportedly slowed Iran’s accumulation of enriched uranium, which Iran insists is legal and for purely peaceful purposes, i.e., providing fuel for a Tehran medical reactor.
Having categorically declared that Iran “will not pursue nuclear weapons under any circumstance,” Rouhani is apt to make a nuclear deal with Washington whereby in exchange for Iran’s forfeiture of 20 percent enrichment and adoption of the IAEA’s intrusive Additional Protocol and other similar transparency measures that would create confidence in Iran’s peaceful nuclear intent, the sanctions on Iran would be gradually lifted.
In addition to such “objective guarantees,” Rouhani has stated that Iran is willing to register the Supreme Leader’s edict against the acquisition and stockpiling of nuclear weapons at the UN in the form of a resolution.
By all indications, instead of knee-jerk objections to Iran’s new nuclear gesture, the United States should engage in serious negotiations with Iran and consider the merits of a successful resolution of the nuclear crisis that could pave the way to the restoration of economic ties between the two countries.
Yet, even though Washington and Tehran are on the cusp of a timely breakthrough in their stalemated relations, this new opportunity may well end up frustrated, as it has been in the past. Therefore, it is incumbent on Washington to proceed, cautiously but prudently, in engaging Iran while insulating itself from third-party influences that do not favor a normalization of US-Iran relations. Whether or not the Obama administration can pass this litmus test of US foreign policy remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that with Rouhani in charge, for the first time United States has a viable “dialogue partner” in Tehran and it would be remiss to lose this opportunity.
Nader Entessar is professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama. Kaveh Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University and a former adviser to the Iranian nuclear negotiating team.