Those of us who have long been Iran-watchers were elated by the June election of moderate Hassan Rouhani to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of the Islamic Republic. His overwhelming plurality and the several conciliatory things he has said, appointments he's making, and his own history as a nuclear negotiator all make his inauguration this week a rare, optimism-bracing event.
Optimism, that is, until you look at the American side of the equation. For the sad thing is, President Obama is not prepared to take advantage of this golden opportunity.
What the cleric can deliver in negotiations or improvements in Iran's dodgy relations with several of its Arab neighbors is difficult to predict, of course. As we are repeatedly reminded, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the ultimate decision maker in Iran, but Rouhani has plenty of clout.
And there's little doubt that he will use that clout to seek some agreement on the nuclear issue that will lift sanctions and allow Iran's struggling economy to improve. Prospectively, a deal could come in any of several forms, from incremental steps to a grand bargain. As most knowledgeable observers agree, the outlines of a deal are on the table and largely acceptable to the P5+1, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia) and Germany. That outline includes a limit on Iran's capacity to enrich uranium to weapons grade, more inspections, and other strictures in exchange for a staged lifting of the economic sanctions (although that latter piece of a deal has never formally been offered by the U.S. and its partners).
On cue and following Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's dark warnings that Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing, the Israel Lobby has denounced Rouhani as either conniving or powerless. The U.S. House of Representatives, just perhaps persuaded by Israel's representatives in Washington, passed this week yet another severe sanctions bill, gleefully aspiring to be the spoiler. Fortunately, it's an empty -- not to say empty-headed -- gesture.
It's flaccid belligerency not least because of what I'll call the "Zarif Effect." Mohammad Javad Zarif, reported to become the new foreign minister of Iran, is a veteran diplomat and, more importantly, one who is thoroughly familiar with the peculiarities of American politics. He served for several years at the U.N. on behalf of Iran, earned a doctorate at the University of Denver, and knows everyone of importance in Washington. Zarif's appointment is the clearest signal from Rouhani that he is serious about changing course and striking a deal with the West, and Zarif has the brains and connections to provide perspective and insights that can make that happen.
One of the highest hurdles in the U.S.-Iran relationship has been how each side misreads the other. Zarif will not do that, an enormous advance.
But will the United States persist in misreading Iran? The buffoonery on Capitol Hill is not something to worry about. Rather, the bigger peril resides in the White House and State Department. That is, there's little evidence that U.S. decision makers are prepared for the opportunity set before them by Rouhani's election (and, not to be underestimated, Khamenei's acceptance of that election and his cabinet picks). Several key advisers have recently departed the National Security Council staff. Secretary of State John Kerry is preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian talks, turmoil in Egypt and Syria, and things beyond the region. The principal negotiator, Wendy Sherman, has proved ineffectual and indeed did not previously have negotiating or nuclear policy experience. Susan Rice has not shown any adeptness with the Iran issue, either.
There is, in short, nobody home. There is no negotiating strategy apart from the stale offerings of last year, when the U.S. and the other P5+1 members could not respond flexibly or creatively. If again the P5+1 demands that Iran meet its terms on enrichment without even mentioning that the sanctions (imposed because Iran was enriching uranium) are negotiable, then Rouhani will have nothing to show for his good will, possibly a death blow to further, serious efforts to compromise.
It is hard to imagine that without a high-level, knowledgeable diplomat in charge, the United States will be able to formulate the flexible negotiating strategy that is required, and needed very soon.
The time is short, although not for the reasons that the House GOP and its Israel Lobby puppeteers say it is -- i.e., that Iran will soon have a bomb to threaten Israel. That has been said repeatedly for thirty years, that Iran would within months have a nuclear weapon. Rather, time is short because if Rouhani's moderate approach is not rewarded, then the conservative backlash in Tehran will be strong and likely very effective, just as it was after the reformer Mohammed Khatami became president. (It is truly remarkable how the conservatives in America and the conservatives in Iran mirror each other.)
As I and others have urged for several years, confidence building on non-nuclear, if related, issues should precede the tougher tasks of nuclear bargaining. There are many small appetizers the U.S. and Europe can set the table with for the bigger and more complex offerings to follow.
But first, we need a chef, and a good one.