The UN General Assembly meetings this week offer President Obama a chance to capitalize on recent diplomatic developments with Syria and to extend a hand to new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in the hopes of launching renewed negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. In an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, Rouhani urged other leaders "to respond genuinely to my government's efforts to engage in constructive dialogue." It is critical for Obama to show that his administration is willing to answer Iranian concessions with some relief of sanctions that Rouhani can bring to the Iranian people.
A prominent adviser to the Iranian leadership, Amir Mohebbian, explains that Iran's leaders see the next six months represent the best opportunity to reach an agreement before campaigning for parliamentary elections begins in March. This is a window the U.S. cannot afford to miss. It is time for the U.S. to offer a reasonable deal that would signal to the Iranian people that the West is willing to work towards a larger agreement.
The administration can stand by its message: that "The U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allow Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes" while simultaneously making tit-for-tat concessions. Hard-liners in the United States and Israel, however, have dismissed the possibility of any talks on the basis that Rouhani is a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and called for further sanctions. But Rouhani's past dealing with the United States suggests otherwise.
Rouhani is one of the "Iranian moderates" who, in May 1986, met secretly in Tehran with officials from President Reagan's National Security Council staff. "He said many things at the time that showed he wanted to deal with us. And we could deal with them," Howard Teicher, then a senior NSC staffer who was a member of the delegation, told Foreign Policy.
In fact, Iran has recently taken some of the very actions that hawks once would have considered small victories. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran has slowed its accumulation of 20% enriched uranium and on Wednesday Iran unexpectedly freed 11 prominent political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.
In responding to these Iranian gestures, the Obama administration will of course have to continue to engage in behind-the-scenes efforts to reassure Israel that they will not be overly eager in easing sanctions. Israel, though, is being far from cooperative as presidents Obama and Rouhani have slowly been building trust.
"There is no need to be fooled by the words," declared an Israeli government statement released late Thursday. Netanyahu said on Thursday that "the international community must increase the pressure on Iran" until it halts uranium enrichment, removes enriched uranium from the country, dismantles the Fordo nuclear plant, and stops "the plutonium track." Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister for strategic affairs added on Friday that "There is no more time to hold negotiations."
While the U.S. should be mindful of Israel's reservations, it cannot let them obstruct dialogue with Iran. The Israeli stance of demanding increased sanctions while declaring that it is too late for negotiations leaves no room for a diplomatic solution and is untenable if any agreement is to be reached. By rejecting any negotiations, Netanyahu's government is ignoring Rouhani's gestures and blocking any preliminary agreements with Iran that would be necessary to pave the way for a long-term deal.
Rouhani also seems to have the political support needed to forge such a deal now that the perceived lack of clarity over who makes final policy decisions in Tehran has been cleared up. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed diplomacy with the West, adopting a posture he describes as "heroic leniency." Equally important is that Khamenei has endorsed Rouhani's position that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should stay out of diplomatic dealings with the West. Rouhani has taken this green light and appointed his widely respected foreign minister, Javad Zarif, to handle the country's nuclear negotiations.
Obama likely be turning to Europe for help in capitalizing on the opportunity created by a recent series of remarkable diplomatic developments in the Middle East. Iran has made a series of conciliatory moves, beginning with the election of Rouhani who during the election vigorously attacked the previous administration's diplomatic relations with the international community. There has since been an exchange of letters between the two presidents, a slowdown of Iran's nuclear program, a release of political prisoners, and most recently, Germany's Der Spiegel has reported that Rouhani is prepared to shut down the Fordow nuclear enrichment plant altogether in return for a relaxation of sanctions.
With Syria, Russia, and the United States brokered the deal to put Assad's chemical arms stockpiles under international control, submitted through resolution to the United Nations Security Council by France. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Saturday that Syria had handed over information about its chemical weapons arsenal, meeting the first deadline of the disarmament operation. France has also shown interest in playing a part in talks with Iran. French President Francois Hollande announces that he will meet with Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Recognizing the varied interest of the United States in the region, Rouhani has also distanced his government from its once-strong ally, Syria's Assad. In his Washington Post op-ed, Rouhani announced that his government is ready to "facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition." On Twitter he called on the "international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in #Syria," and in a speech to Revolutionary Guard commanders, claimed that Iran will support whomever the Syrian people chose as their leader, even if that person is not Assad.
These recent diplomatic developments between the U.S., Iran, and Syria suggest that this week's meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York will be a particularly eventful one. On Tuesday the General Assembly opens its 68th session with speeches from presidents Obama and Rouhani that will set the tone for any talks to follow.
White House national security official Ben Rhodes said Friday that there's no meeting "currently planned" between the two presidents, but former officials predict a "chance" encounter outside the halls of the General Assembly. Such an encounter is necessary and should be the first step towards a more cooperative U.S. policy towards Iran.
Before Iran is likely to make a substantial shift in its policies, it would need to see some reward for its initial steps, including relief from crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations. "At the very least," suggests TIME Magazine's Fareed Zakaria, "the Obama Administration should come up with a reasonable offer that would signal to the Iranian people that if the regime is willing to credibly forswear nuclear weapons, ordinary Iranians will have a brighter future."
The opportunity for Rouhani is clear. He can come to a preliminary deal with the West that would diffuse tensions, relax sanctions, and stimulate the economy. Given these incentives, the U.S. needs to accept that Rouhani is willing to negotiate in good faith and respond in kind. The ball is in the United States' court. Don't drop it.