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Buds of hope for US-Iran nuclear talks

With a new, more moderate president, Iran trades signals with US over possible openings for nuclear talks. Each side needs to first build trust. The next two months will be critical to find peace paths.

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    Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (c.), President-elect Hassan Rohani (r.), and outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sit in an official endorsement ceremony for Mr. Rohani in Tehran, Iran, Aug. 3.
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An olive branch, as a symbol for peace, often serves its purpose simply as a bud. That may be the case in judging the subtle signals – or buds – that Iran and the Obama administration are sending each other about a renewed willingness for direct talks.

Without a peace deal, each country sees either a possible war or a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. So it’s important to catch peace signals early.

The occasion for the latest diplomatic gestures was Sunday’s inauguration of Hassan Rohani, a self-described moderate, as Iran’s new president. The Scottish-educated Muslim cleric has selected Western-oriented and reformist members for his cabinet. Unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he speaks of “wisdom” rather than “radicalism” and of “constructive interaction with the world.” And for the first time, the Islamic Republic welcomed other heads of state to a presidential swearing-in.

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The White House, meanwhile, used the June 14 election of Mr. Rohani to ever so slightly ease up on sanctions against Iran, notably in medical supplies. Last week, it appeared lukewarm about a House bill, passed by a large majority, that aims to cut off all of Iran’s crucial oil exports. And the Obama administration widened the door a bit for talks by saying the United States would be a “willing partner” if Iran engages “substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations” for its nuclear program.

With Israel opposing any US-Iranian talks – and poised to attack Iranian nuclear facilities if need be – President Obama may feel constrained in reaching out to Rohani. And Rohani is constrained by Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls the nuclear program.

Each government has time restraints. The US wants to prevent Iran from reaching bombmaking capability, which could occur by next year. It can’t let Tehran buy time with drawn-out negotiations. And Iran needs to prevent ever-tougher economic sanctions from pushing Iranians to revolt.

The next two months will be a critical test to see if Rohani’s election means Iran is ready to be transparent about its nuclear facilities and allow unfettered inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Otherwise, Mr. Obama will be hard pressed to oppose Congress on tougher sanctions.

Already, Iran suffers 40 percent inflation. Nearly a third of young people are unemployed. Iran was once the second largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Now it is sixth. While Rohani promises economic and social reforms, it’s not clear if he can stem the daily shortages and high prices caused by the sanctions.

Getting to direct talks requires a leap of trust by both Iran and the US. The next step would require nuclear transparency on Iran’s part and an easing of sanctions by the US. These steps may be easier with a newly elected reformer as president in Iran and a lame-duck president in the US.

Olive branches bloom depending on the season and often need to be noticed early. Now may be that season for a US-Iranian reconciliation.

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