08/23/2013 01:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

President Obama Must Seize the Moment on Iran

Image by Zereshk, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There's been quite a bit of good news out of Iran this summer. It began with the election of Hassan Rouhani as President. Rouhani was the leader of Iran's nuclear negotiating team from 2003, when he was appointed by reformist President Mohammad Khatami, until 2005 when he resigned following the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, the man he has now succeeded as President. Given his history and his actions thus far, there may well be a golden opportunity for Iran and the West to come to a wide-ranging agreement over Tehran's nuclear program and restore some kind of normal relations going forward.

The Iranian people knew what they were getting when they elected Rouhani, who made clear that he intended a more moderate approach than that of his hard-line predecessor. For example, Rouhani offered the following comment in an interview published before the election:

"The Iran-U.S. relationship is a complex and difficult issue. A bitter history, filled with mistrust and animosity, marks this relationship. It has become a chronic wound whose healing is difficult but possible, provided that good faith and mutual respect prevail. In my view, the current state of affairs between Iran and the U.S. cannot and should not remain forever. Extremists on both sides seem to be determined to perpetuate the situation of animosity and hatred between the two countries. However, common sense dictates a change in this trend with a view to opening a new chapter in this uneasy and challenging relationship to decrease enmity and mistrust.

States can have differences of views on major international issues, but nevertheless remain civil towards one another and attempt, in the worst-case scenario, to narrow the differences through positive dialogue and interaction at any level possible under the circumstances. As a moderate, I have a phased plan to deescalate hostility to a manageable state of tension and then engage in promotion of interactions and dialogue between the two peoples to achieve détente, and finally reach to the point of mutual respect that both peoples deserve."

Rouhani's moderation is consistent with the views of the broader Iranian population. We know from numerous polls that the people of Iran feel warmly toward Americans and that they support restoring diplomatic ties between the two countries, despite the long, and, shall we say, complicated history between them.

Iran's new president rejects the previous administration's approach to foreign policy, one which too often centered on sticking a finger in the eye of his adversaries just to win points with a domestic constituency. That kind of change helps. Of course, ultimate authority over Iran's nuclear policy and its foreign relations resides with the head of state, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and the election of Rouhani does not change that. The question is whether -- even if Rouhani wants to move Iran in a more moderate direction -- Khamenei will allow it.

Khamenei did allow Rouhani to run for the presidency, and did allow him to win, something that the editorial board of the Washington Post flatly stated would not happen. Furthermore, Akbar Ali Velayati, a key advisor to the Supreme Leader, recently offered his belief that Rouhani's election offered the West a new "opportunity" to achieve a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

What has Rouhani done since taking office? First there's the rhetoric. He rejected his predecessor's use of inflammatory language as a foreign policy tool. There was some controversy surrounding remarks about Israel that were mistakenly attributed to Rouhani. He spoke of "the shadow of the occupation of the holy land of Palestine and the dear Quds [i.e., Jerusalem]" and compared it to a long-lasting "wound" or "sore." Initial reports, however, had quoted him as calling Israel "a sore which must be removed." Certainly, Rouhani's actual words represent harsh criticism, but they are very different from those of Ahmadinejad regarding the desirability of Israel's disappearance. This represents progress.

Beyond rhetoric are the people Rouhani is appointing to and/or removing from key positions. At the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which runs the operation of Iran's nuclear program, the new president replaced a hard-liner, Fereydoon Abbasi-Davan, with Ali Akbar Salehi, a "pragmatist." (Abbasi-Davan was the target of an assassination attempt in November 2010. Iran accused Israel of being behind the attack, and Israel refused to comment, as is its policy regarding such accusations.) Additionally, Iran's envoy to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, announced his resignation, another sign that Rouhani intends to move in a new direction.

Finally, although it has not yet been officially announced, it appears that Mohammad Javad Zarif -- recently confirmed as Iran's new Foreign Minister -- will be taking over as the leader of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team. Zarif was a key player in developing Iran's offer of a "Grand Bargain" in 2003 that would have allowed international inspectors to oversee its nuclear program, halted Iran's backing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, committed Iran to reining in and helping to disarm Hezbollah, and even moved Iran toward recognition of Israel by announcing its support for the Arab Peace Initiative. In return, Iran was to receive the technology necessary to create a functioning, peaceful nuclear energy program, an end to all sanctions, and a recognition of its "legitimate security interests." Iran made the offer of the Grand Bargain just after Baghdad fell to invading U.S. and coalition forces.

Flynt Leverett, senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council at the time, read the proposal when it came in and has since strongly criticized the Bush Administration for ignoring it.

"At the time, the Iranians were not spinning centrifuges, they were not enriching uranium," noted Leverett, who also called Iran's proposal "a serious effort, a respectable effort to lay out a comprehensive agenda for U.S.-Iranian rapprochement."

The Bush team did nothing. In fact, Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's National Security Advisor in 2003, said: "I honestly don't remember seeing it." Richard Haas, then in charge of policy planning at the State Department and currently head of the Council on Foreign Relations, explained that the Bush Administration wasn't interested in a comprehensive peace deal because "the bias was toward a policy of regime change."

The point is that if Zarif -- given his involvement with the Grand Bargain offer -- does end up leading the nuclear negotiating team, combined with everything else Rouhani has done in just two months, it will serve as a real indication that Iran wants progress.

George W. Bush already missed one golden opportunity -- one that was initiated by some of the same players in charge now and which was approved by Supreme Leader Khamenei at the time -- to bring to an end the Iranian-U.S. rivalry, and to solve the problems stemming from Iran's nuclear program. Whatever one thinks about that program and its intentions, a solution to those problems cannot help but be a positive development for the entire region and beyond.

Iran certainly appears to have embarked on a new path, and now is the time for President Obama to seize the moment and find out just how far along that path Iran is willing to go. Since Rouhani's election, Obama has already taken some conciliatory steps to ease sanctions relating to humanitarian aid, as well as medical and agricultural supplies (even as the House of Representatives has passed a bill making other sanctions harsher). Once the negotiating teams are in place, the president should move quickly to undo George W. Bush's mistake and to conclude a comprehensive agreement with Iran along the lines of the Grand Bargain. That would be a worthy achievement for the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.