Opinion

US must not miss new opportunity to engage with Iran

For 30 years, the US and Iran have squandered engagement opportunities. President Obama – especially as US officials meet with allies in Brussels today to discuss next steps in nuclear negotiations with Tehran – should avoid a redux with Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani.

By , Op-ed contributor

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    Iran's President-elect Hasan Rouhani places his hand on his heart as a sign of respect after speaking at a news conference in Tehran, Iran, June 17. Op-ed contributor Ali Vaez writes: '[I]n coordination with allies, the US should chart a roadmap...that would sequence the lifting of sanctions in a manner commensurate to desired Iranian nuclear concessions.'
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Squandering any opportunity for détente has been the norm in US-Iran relations during the past three decades. Iranians missed a major opening when President Obama came to power in 2009. Americans – especially as they meet with their allies in Brussels today to discuss next steps in nuclear negotiations with Tehran – should avoid a redux with Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani.

After coming to office in 2009, Mr. Obama made a genuine effort to mend America’s relations with its arch adversary in the Middle East. Not only did he publically offer an “extended hand” to Iran, but he also sent two private letters to the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeking engagement.

But Tehran remained mistrustful.

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“We have no experience of this new president and administration,” Mr. Khamenei said. “We will wait and see. If you [the United States] change your attitude, we will change, too. If you do not change, then our nation will build on its experience of the past 30 years.” Rebuffed, the opportunity for engagement vanished as rapidly as it appeared and was replaced with a vicious race of sanctions against centrifuges.

Now, another opening has emerged. On June 14, Hassan Rouhani, the architect of the only nuclear agreement between Iran and the West during the past 11 years, was elected president of Iran. In an impressive turnout, the majority of Iran’s electorate cast their votes for the most moderate and pragmatic candidate in Iran’s six-way race. Mr. Rouhani’s victory unleashed a torrent of jubilation on Iranian streets.

Yet Washington remains mistrustful.

Instead of congratulating the new president, who has the support of more than half of Iran’s electorate, the White House’s press release said “…despite [the] government obstacles and limitations, the Iranian people were determined to act to shape their future.” Obama was cautious. “We’re going to have to continue to see how this develops and how this evolves over the next several weeks, months, years,” he said in an interview with PBS.

This skepticism is understandable. After all, Iran’s president-elect is a consummate regime insider. Since the inception of the Islamic Republic, Rouhani has never been out of power or Khamenei’s good graces. This background has provided ammunition for the campaign against Rouhani, which is already in full swing.

Resorting to debatable evidence, some accuse him of involvement in terrorism and other nefarious acts. Others see his victory as the product of deep political machinations, a subterfuge for advancing the nuclear program under a more accommodating guise. Some subscribe to the school of thought of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who contends that as long as the Supreme Leader reigns supreme, the president will be irrelevant, hence the necessity of ratcheting up pressure on Iran.

None of this is surprising. Overcoming three decades of accumulated enmity and surmounting the great wall of mistrust between the US and Iran will not be easy. Priorities, however, must be clear.

If the main US policy objective is to ensure that Iran steers clear of a nuclear breakout capability, Rouhani’s insider credentials should be welcomed. A moderate voice on the nuclear issue that still holds some sway within the regime is more likely to deliver on a nuclear compromise than a regime critic who would be stymied at every turn, destined to wage a losing fight.

While Rouhani – like other Iranian presidents – doesn’t have final say on foreign policy matters, the president’s tone and team will affect the diplomatic process. A simple comparison of Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies under presidents Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be proof enough.

Finally, even if charges about Rouhani’s background are accurate, they should not block the diplomatic path as America has never shied away from negotiating with leaders boasting imperfect pasts when national interest has obliged. 

Instead of just playing a waiting game, Washington should give engagement with Iran a second try. To this end, the Obama administration should signal a shift in style, substance, and strategy.

To change the style, Obama could send a public message on the new president’s inauguration day – August 3, 2013. The message should contain no negative qualifiers, but remain sober. Some text along the lines of the French foreign ministry’s announcement on the occasion of Rouhani’s election will go a long way. I would suggest something like the following:

"The expectations of the international community of Iran are significant, especially about its nuclear program and its involvement in Syria. We are ready to work with Mr. Rouhani’s government to resolve these issues."

To be sure, Obama might be criticized for endorsing Iran’s faulty electoral process. But this can be easily brushed off given that the majority of Iran’s population opted to take part in the poll and that most US allies in the region don’t even hold elections. In addition to the public letter, the US president should send another private one to the Supreme Leader, making clear that Washington does not aim at bypassing him and is ready for talks based on a comprehensive agenda.

To change the substance, in coordination with allies, the US should chart a roadmap – beyond the initial confidence building steps – that would sequence the lifting of sanctions in a manner commensurate to desired Iranian nuclear concessions. It will be a waste of precious time to wait idly for Rouhani’s first step, without having thought through a few steps ahead.

It is also important to showcase commitment to diplomacy by avoiding any additional sanctions legislation. Four are currently in the pipeline, and Congress likely will resist administration pleas to forestall them given that it appears unmoved by Rouhani’s victory. The problem is that additional sanctions pressure will be interpreted by Iran as yet another effort to promote regime change, will be used by Tehran’s conservative elements to argue against any opening offered by Rouhani, and thus obstruct the possibility of holding genuine talks.

To demonstrate a different strategy in which Washington is willing to forge an agreement with Tehran, the Obama administration should reverse its objection to Iranian participation at the Geneva 2 conference on the future of Syria. The decision can be justified by Tehran’s new political face. By now, it is clear that the Syrian crisis might not be resolved by including Iran, but it certainly will not be resolved by excluding Tehran.

Implementing all or some of these measures might seem too cumbersome, but that is only until one considers the alternative – another war in the Middle East. Obama’s predecessors seldom cultivated an opportunity with Iran until that opportunity had ceased to exist. With some audacious leadership, this time could be different.

Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group’s senior Iran analyst.

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