War Stories

Take a Chance on Iran

President Obama would be crazy not to seize the opportunity that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has given him.

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani
Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani speaks with the media during a news conference in Tehran on June 17, 2013. President Obama should take Rouhani seriously; he might really mean what he says.

Photo by Fars News via Reuters

President Obama would be crazy not to dive deep into diplomacy with Iran, right now. Forget the standard throat-clearing bromides and water-testing toe-dips that mark the resumption of relations with suspect characters. When the world’s leaders meet at the U.N. General Assembly next week, Obama should not only shake hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani but also meet with him privately, hand him a list of a dozen issues to discuss (uranium enrichment, sanctions, regional stability, etc.), and even be prepared to announce, if possible, a time and place for negotiations to begin and a roster of the delegates to be invited.

If Rouhani is who he claims to be—an Iranian moderate who has the authority to strike a bargain on nuclear programs and economic sanctions (at least until hardliners lose patience with him)—then this is an opportunity no Western leader can pass up.

If it’s all a ruse, or if the mullahs overrule whatever deal emerges, there’s no harm in trying. In fact, if things go bad and Western leaders feel compelled to respond with tighter sanctions or military action, they could do so with greater legitimacy after having given the high road a chance.

In any case, it does little good to sit around and debate the potential truth of Rouhani’s proclamations or the nature of Iranian politics, about which any outsider’s knowledge is limited. Rouhani has put his statements on the table. No Iranian president, in the entire revolutionary period, has said anything remotely this appealing. He has appointed, in Mohammad Javad Zarif, a foreign minister whose known views are consistent with these statements. Iran’s economy is in such a tailspin that the regime—including the mullahs who are ultimately in charge—may be willing to trade some things of value for an end to the U.S.-imposed sanctions.

History provides at best rough guides for action, a smattering of precedents from which hawks and doves can pluck “lessons” to bolster their cases. I remember the fierce debates, within the U.S. government and among outside experts, over whether Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms were real or deceptive. A few decades earlier, similar arguments raged over Nikita Khrushchev’s stabs at détente. (In a mid-1964 issue of the U.S. Information Agency’s journal Problems of Communism, the noted Kremlinologist William E. Griffith railed against a few scholars who’d detected internecine conflict within the Politburo and declared that Khrushchev’s grip on power was as tight as Stalin’s had ever been. Khrushchev was ousted by hardliners just weeks after the article was published.)

On the other hand, one could point to the determined efforts by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to negotiate with Iranian leaders who spoke like reformers but whose policies were actually set, and whose hopeful rhetoric was ultimately overridden, by the mullahs.

Iranian-American relations have been gripped in a loopy psychodrama ever since 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow President Mohammad Mossadeq and install the Shah. In his 2004 book The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth Pollack invoked the old saying “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone’s not out to get you,” and added that, in this case, the Iranians were right: “We were out to get them.” The dread was reciprocated in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers held American diplomats hostage in the U.S. Embassy.

And yet, even through this era, there have been moments of incipient rapprochement, most notably in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks when Iran supplied the CIA with intelligence about al-Qaida. Relations gradually warmed, to the point where midlevel American and Iranian officials met for face-to-face talks about a variety of issues in Geneva. Then, in early 2002, just as relations were on the verge of warming, President George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union address, branding Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil”—at which point the Geneva talks ended and Iran stepped up its nuclear program.

We may be on the precipice of another possible breakthrough now. It’s worth testing, anyway. The doubters warn that the Iranians—perhaps Rouhani himself, perhaps the mullahs who are using him—are deceiving the world in order to buy time: The West gets strung along in endless negotiations, while in the meantime Iran continues to build a nuclear weapon.

Maybe the skeptics are right. But the bamboozling, if that’s what this gambit is, can go only so far. Obama isn’t about to mothball the aircraft carriers on patrol in the Mediterranean, nor stand down the numerous intelligence agencies monitoring Iran’s nuclear sites. In fact, the concern about “buying time” strengthens the case that Obama should put his own proposals on the table soon—in the next week or two, at the latest.

Even assuming Rouhani is the real thing, the question remains: What does he want? There should be no illusions here. Iran’s national interest—going back not merely decades but centuries—is to be a leading power in the region. In some ways, this conflicts with U.S. interests; in some ways, it can coexist with them. That isn’t an argument against probing Tehran’s goals.

In his Sept. 19 Washington Post op-ed, Rouhani spelled out, or subtly hinted at, some of his goals in what he called a policy of “prudent engagement.” He made it very clear that any deal struck with the West would have to preserve Iran’s program of enriching uranium, at least to some extent. “A constructive approach to diplomacy,” he wrote, “doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights”—and under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran does have the right to enrich uranium, short of the level needed to build a nuclear bomb. He added, for good measure, “To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power … is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world. Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved.”

It’s been clear, to a lot of analysts, that even Western-leaning Iranians feel this way about their nuclear program. Any “grand bargain” with Iran would have to leave it with the right and the ability to enrich uranium up to, say, a level of 20 percent purity. Bomb-making requires about 80 percent enrichment, but it’s easier to get from 25 percent to 80 percent than it is to get from zero to 25. This can be verified with on-site inspection, which is allowed by the “Safeguards” annex to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Rouhani’s op-ed also makes much of the role of “identities”—national and otherwise—in fostering and calming conflict, and he states, with what might be more aspiration than description, “Gone is the age of blood feuds.” That is a clear reference to the growing Sunni-Shiite conflict that is coming to grip the entire region, especially in Syria.

Skeptics might note that Rouhani is threatening to put Obama in a box on the Syrian issue—a hint that U.S. airstrikes on Syria will make talks with Iran impossible. In one sense, he’s probably stating a fact: Rouhani may well be riding a very tight rope in Iranian politics. U.S. military intervention in Syria may lead his own domestic critics to conclude that talks with the Americans are futile.

However, Rouhani’s statement follows, serendipitously, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic overture in Syria. A quick settlement on Syria, at least when it comes to the issue of chemical weapons—which I think Putin has a very strong national interest to make happen—could spur, or at least remove an obstacle to, a smooth start to U.S. negotiations with Iran.

For years, many have noted that the problems in the Middle East are so intricately related that it would be hard to solve each on its own. Obama may have before him a rare convergence of events, factors, and forces where at least some of those problems can be dealt with simultaneously. He has a remarkable chance to pull the gold ring. Maybe it will prove to be the diplomatic equivalent of the Maltese Falcon, the stuff that dreams are made of. But maybe it could be the real deal. Either way, it’s worth grabbing at the chance.