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opinion | Colin Nickerson

Can the US-Iran rift be healed?

Leaders could make a breakthrough on nuclear talks if hard-liners on both sides don’t block progress

US Secretary of State John Kerry, right, walks in Geneva with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Jan. 14.EPA/LAURENT GILLIERON

It’s a tale of two leaders insistently nudging the United States and Iran toward real reconciliation, if not ardent embrace.

But it could turn into a tragedy of two sets of lawmakers disinclined to put aside decades of animosity. Hard-liners in Iran’s parliament loathe the “Great Satan’’ with the same undiluted venom that many congressional conservatives hold for the Islamic Republic.

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers — including the United States — meet in Geneva on Sunday with the aim of finetuning details on an ambitious deal to throttle back Tehran’s nuclear development program. Iran might finally be willing to sacrifice its nuclear ambitions in exchange for a full lifting of international economic sanctions, which have beggared the proud and ever-pugnacious descendent of the ancient Persian Empire.


No dramatic declaration is likely to come from Geneva, but the sessions could set the stage for a historic deal within months. For the first time, top leaders in both countries seem eager to cut a deal, but they face substantial opposition from political foes at home.

Past talks have yielded much disappointment. But it finally seems possible that 2015 might see the breakthrough that could lead Iran and the United States toward permanent detente, the Middle East equivalent of America’s breathtaking 1972 rapprochement with “Red China’’ — or last month’s startling if far less geopolitically significant move by President Obama to mend relations with Cuba.

“Defusing tensions with Iran would be Mr. Obama’s biggest foreign policy achievement, dwarfing the Cuba overture,’’ said Robin Wright, a foreign affairs analyst at the US Institute for Peace.

But can it really happen?

There’s no question that the Iranian side is more serious than ever before. Their advance teams this week negotiated in earnest. And President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry want badly to defuse Iran’s nuclear potential while slowly coaxing the country back into what wags describe as the League of Semi-respectable Nations.


In terms of a larger game, Obama’s policy of tilting American strategic policy more toward East Asia, the opening of Iran would be welcome to China and other Asian countries as a source of oil — cheap and overly abundant now, but eventually demand will boomerang — and as an important potential market for Asian exports.

Obama has lately spoken with surprising optimism about healing the bitter rift, the bane of six American presidents since Islamic revolutionaries seized the US Embassy in Teheran in 1979, holding 52 Americans captive for 444 days.

“They’ve got a chance to get right with the world,’’ the president told National Public Radio in late December.

In an encouraging sign, Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani last week openly hinted that the country might sharply reduce the scope of its nuclear program. Iran insists that its 20,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges are intended only for peaceful purposes. The United States and most other nations believe Teheran is intent on making nuclear weapons, and is close to reaching the capacity to do so.

Iran is ringed by nuclear powers, including Pakistan, Russia, China, Israel, and the United States in the form of the Fifth Fleet. The country was badly bloodied in its 1980-’88 war with Iraq. Gaining atomic clout has long been a national priority. But Rouhani seems genuinely intent on guiding his country down a more peaceful path.

“Our cause is not linked to a centrifuge; it is connected to our heart and willpower,’’ Rouhani told an economic conference. “If we show some transparency, and… halt some of the enrichment operation we don’t need, does it mean we have to let go of our ideals?’’


In other words, Iran doesn’t need nuclear warheads either to survive or win respect, but it desperately needs to jump-start its economy, which is reeling under sanctions and collapsing oil prices.

“We can’t have sustainable growth while we are isolated,’’ Rouhani said.

To grease the deal, Obama has allowed Iran to retrieve $700 million a month in overseas assets frozen abroad. This was part on an “interim’’ agreement that partly paved the path to Sunday’s round of talks.

But the talks will be threatened by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose hatred of the “decadent’’ West is almost a second religion. Even if Rouhani negotiates a nuclear deal, Khamenei might move to quash it. “The Supreme Leader is playing his cards close to the vest,” said Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. “It’s just not clear that he cares even slightly about re-joining’’ the international community.

Hard-liners in Iran’s fractious parliament are generally hostile to the notion of cutting back on nuclear development. But in a surprise, Parliament last week gave Rouhani’s chief negotiator an informal vote of confidence. And real support for a deal in Parliament might give Khamenei pause. He’s powerful, but little loved. Iranians could take to the streets if Khamenei is seen as slamming the door to real overtures from the world.


If Iran comes close to acceding to US demands to reduce its nuclear program, Obama might invoke executive authority to close a deal. But congressional conservatives would balk — and Congress has the final say on lifting sanctions. Some Republicans want to heap even more penalties on Iran.

Hope is high that negotiations this weekend could start to bring down the wall of mistrust between the two nations. Obama and Rohani seem to be moving in the right spirit. It would be a shame if hard-liners at home prevent a breakthrough in negotiations.


Editorial: US should accept a good deal with Iran, but not just any deal

Ariane Tabatabai: Five myths about Iran’s nuclear program

Nader Entessar and Kaveh Afrasiabi: Nuclear deal could reset US-Iran relations

Alan Berger: US shouldn’t let Iraq be bargaining chip with Iran

Colin Nickerson is a contributor to the Globe’s editorial page.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that an atomic facility in Iran was attacked by Israel in 1981. The atomic facility was in Iraq.