A Diplomatic Breakthrough With Iran?

10/07/2013 11:04 am ET | Updated Dec 07, 2013

While the focus of the national news media is fixed squarely on Washington, DC and the ongoing shutdown of the federal government, it is important to not lose sight of the major diplomatic events that took place last week. Together, the United States and Russia successfully steered a resolution to implement the surrender of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile through the United Nations Security Council. While the practical task of safely removing those weapons remains a difficult challenge, the nature of the cooperation between Washington and Moscow is remarkable and could have larger implications for finding a resolution to the conflict.

As much as this was seen as a major achievement, it may have been overshadowed by subsequent developments in U.S.-Iran relations, including President Obama's brief telephone discussion with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York. This was the first such meeting between U.S. and Iranian officials since 1979. Direct talks on the Iranian nuclear program are scheduled to begin in Geneva on October 15th.

Presenting a far more moderate and cooperative tone than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and expressing a willingness to engage in serious negotiations, President Rouhani seems committed to a new path for Iranian diplomacy. Moreover, having received the critical public endorsement of Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it seems that a new phase in U.S.-Iran relations may be underway. Clearly the strict sanctions regime has taken a significant toll on the economy and the daily lives of ordinary Iranians. Khamenei is sensitive to this domestic political situation and thus has supported Rouhani's outreach to the United States and the West after almost a decade of Ahmadinejad's belligerent defiance.

Of course there are significant pressures on both Rouhani and President Obama that should underscore the potential seriousness of the Iranian leader's approach but also temper the prospects of any immediate successes. Rouhani has mentioned consummating a deal within the next three months precisely because he fears that a longer, drawn out process will lend support to hard-line opposition in Tehran, primarily from high-level Revolutionary Guard Corps elements who oppose any negotiations with the United States. Without some tangible progress in this window, it will be easy for these hardliners to portray the United States as acting a bad faith and simply working to constrain or reverse the progress made in the Iranian nuclear program.

For President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, there are both domestic and foreign audiences to consider. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's description of Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing," (compared to Ahmadinejad - a "wolf in wolf's clothing") reflects a healthy measure of skepticism about Tehran's new cooperative policy. Hawkish, pro-Israeli politicians and pundits in the United States have followed suit, warning against taking Iran at its word and tacitly criticizing the naiveté of President Obama for reciprocating interest in direct negotiations.

There are certainly reasons to be skeptical. The process of negotiating a mutually acceptable deal on the nuclear program is likely to be complicated and difficult even though the contours of a deal have been evident for some time. In broad terms, in return for a functioning civilian nuclear program, Tehran would place its facilities under strict International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) surveillance controls and in return would receive relief from the harsh sanctions that have been imposed by the United States and its allies and partners. A critical point concerns Iran's ability to enrich uranium, and the quantities of enriched uranium it may possess. This is the "dangerous" material created in the process of the nuclear fuel cycle that can be utilized to create a weapon, and thus activities associated with enrichment must be subjected to strict IAEA oversight. Clearly, the burdens on any monitoring regime would be significant, and the longstanding enmity and mistrust between Iran and much of the West will be difficult to overcome.

Nevertheless, pursuing direct talks makes sense. The past decade of mutual hostility has accomplished little. The Iranian people have suffered, but the nuclear program which is a significant driver of regional instability and a central threat to U.S. security interests has progressed. If indeed the Iranian nuclear program is peaceful, a deal should be possible. A comprehensive negotiated settlement that resolves the nuclear issue as well as longer standing grievances between the two nations may well take years. However, smaller concrete steps to build confidence, increase transparency and forge a durable working relationship should be attainable if Tehran is undertaking a substantive policy shift toward cooperation rather than a mere stylistic change in diplomatic tactics.