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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 Ali VaezOp-ed contributor / July 16, 2013

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.'

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP/File

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Washington

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.

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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.

“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.

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