THE BLOG
07/11/2014 05:40 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

Can the U.S. and Iran Become Trustworthy Rivals?

AP

Diplomats from the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) and negotiators from the United States and Iran have been diligently striving to meet the July 20 deadline for signing a historic and unprecedented accord assuring that Iran will not build nuclear weapons. Although the interim agreement signed in November 2013 allows for a six-month extension, prolonging these crucial negotiations in a time of extreme turmoil in the Middle East region is not in the interest of either Iran or the U.S. It is time to end 35 years of wasteful cold war and mutual satanization with Iran. Both nations must instead focus their full diplomatic powers on stabilizing the deteriorating security conditions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

Both sides know that a successful settlement on the nuclear issue rests on reliable trust-but-verify protocols. For the United States and the P5+1 group, three main trust-confirming objectives are essential: continual Iranian cooperation with random inspections to verify that nuclear weapons are not being built; expansion of the IAEA's ability to effectively monitor Iranian nuclear-power activities to allow discovery and neutralization of any breakout attempt; and voluntary adoption of verifiable legal and technical restrictions to ensure that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

To address these concerns effectively, Iran must sign the IAEA Additional Protocol, a legal document that grants the IAEA complete authority over inspection of nuclear facilities on declared and possible undeclared activities. Under the protocol, the IAEA can initiate surprise inspections with expanded rights of access to sites and pertinent information.

Because the Iranian parliament has to vote to endorse the IAEA Additional Protocol, it is vital for President Rouhani's administration to obtain this approval even though the parliament has not been generally supportive of his win-win approach with the West. President Rouhani can still remedy this problem if he submits the Additional Protocol along with the fatwa (ruling) issued by Ayatollah Khamenei that religiously forbids the development of nuclear weapons. Submitting these together as effectively one piece of legislation will dissuade hardliners from rejecting the protocol supported by the fatwa of their Supreme Leader.

Both in Tehran and in Washington, D.C., domestic political opponents of détente are loudly criticizing the naïveté of any agreement between historically untrustworthy adversaries. Negotiators on both sides know that they can only secure a lasting accord if it is supported by a majority of their fellow citizens, who will want to feel that their nation is acting wisely, not weakly, in coming to such terms. Still, with a balanced agreement, the majority of Americans and Iranians desire the chance for a new future. Despite reservations on both sides, now is the time to complete this long-neglected work and enter a new era based on a verifiable experiment in mutual trust.

Some Americans are trying to keep sanctions in place until all substantive foreign-policy disagreements can be resolved. This is utterly overreaching and disrespects the good-faith intentions of the negotiations.

Even if we could pressure the Iranians to sign a verifiable nuclear-weapons agreement without lifting all the punishing sanctions, it would be a self-defeating diplomatic disaster not unlike what happened with the Versailles Treaty, signed 95 years ago. That treaty imposed such harsh penalties on Germany that the resentment among the German people erupted in virulent retaliation that set off a chain of violent events unlike the world had ever seen. It should matter deeply to us all how the Iranian people feel about the fairness and respectfulness of this agreement. In a real way World War I and World War II finally ended when the United States decided to reject punishments of former enemies and generously reconstruct all of Europe with the Marshall Plan. Within less than a decade, against all prior assumptions, the U.S. made friends of adversaries, with enormously positive political ramifications for the world. With that same practical spirit, fully acknowledging our rival interests and views, is it not obvious that America is better off with the Iranian people as strong and trustworthy collaborators for stability in a region of dysfunctional states and violent movements?

The Iranian leaders certainly know that if they fail to live up to their commitments, the United States and others will reimpose the sanctions. Furthermore, this time, if Iran violates the terms of the agreement, the Iranian people will clearly blame their government for such a failure, meaning uncertain consequences for the regime.

If Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel were able to sign a peace treaty in 1979 that has stood the test of time despite their countries' continual differences and the tumultuous instability in the region, cannot the world powers seize this moment for a comprehensive, verifiable and respectful agreement with Iran that opens the way for normalization of the relationship between Iran and the United States?

Winning the peace based on prudent trust between countries with rival interests is never easy, but it is the summit of statesmanship. A new future based on growing mutual trust is now a real possibility, and it would be tragic to waste this opportunity. The United States and its European partners should let the Iranian people know that they desire a balanced, verifiable agreement that lifts all sanctions and launches a new relationship with Iran.

Bahman Baktiri holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Virginia. He is the executive director of the International Foundation for Civil Society in the Middle East and North Africa.

Charles Randall Paul holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought. He is the president and founder of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.