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With Rouhani as president, time for US to try new approach on Iran

America's usual tack on Iran's nuclear program hasn't worked. The US should test the intentions of Iran's new President Hasan Rouhani, who visits the UN today, by trying a new approach: capitalizing on areas where US and Iranian interests align, such as Afghanistan, or even Iraq.

By Peter Jenkins, Robert HunterOp-ed contributors / September 24, 2013

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks during an interview with state television in Tehran Sept. 10. Mr. Rouhani visits the United Nations today. Op-ed contributors, Ambs. Peter Jenkins and Robert Hunter write: '[T]he US should understand that calling for more sanctions (as Congress has done) in the face of possible change by Iran under its new president poisons diplomacy before it starts.'

Rouzbeh Jadidoleslam/Office of the Iranian Presidency/AP


Washington, D.C.; and Bath, England

The visit of Iran's new President Hasan Rouhani to the United Nations today helps mark his return to the diplomatic frontline, along with Iran's new foreign minister, Javad Zarif. Their reemergence has raised hopes that Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear program might at last be allayed. Both men are Western-educated and understand American ways; both have proved to be tough but pragmatic diplomats.

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Yet even before Mr. Rouhani took office, skeptics doubted that the US would exercise the imagination and flexibility needed for diplomacy to succeed and to reduce risks of a conflict that can benefit no one.

Their doubts aren’t unfounded. But instead of sticking to the usual demands and arguments, which has proved to be a sterile pursuit, the United States should test the intentions of Team Rouhani by trying a new approach. If the US genuinely wants only to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, Washington needs to seek and leverage areas of common – or at least compatible – interests.

Hardliners suggest that the US should insist that Iran limit its uranium enrichment capability to just a few thousand first-generation centrifuge machines. At such a level of capacity, there would be minimal risk of Iran’s producing enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon without being detected in good time.

But there is no reason to think that Iran will agree to such limits on uranium enrichment. Tehran says it has a practical need for many more than a few thousand machines – to produce fuel for power-generating reactors. Not unreasonably, Iran also asserts the principle of equal treatment for all parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it belongs.

America’s asserting that Iran’s non-compliance with the treaty has lost it the right to operate enrichment plants has gotten us nowhere for more than a decade and it won’t work now.

Absent from the treaty is any indication that parties who stray forfeit their treaty right to make peaceful use of nuclear fuel-cycle technologies. Further, many states, including Russia and China whose full cooperation is required to make sanctions work, argue that Iran has been compliant with the non-proliferation treaty since the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that all Iran’s pre-2004 safeguards failures had been corrected.

Instead of re-litigating the treaty, Washington must take a new tack and gauge the extent to which Rouhani – and the supreme leader – are truly willing to work on a diplomatic solution.

Iran recognizes that its failure to comply with nuclear safeguards obligations forfeited the confidence of the international community in Iranian intentions.


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