08/15/2013 02:24 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

Is an Iranian Nuclear Deal Possible?

There have been many calls for the U.S. and its negotiating partners to engage the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in serious negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. Rouhani's initial statements, his previous position as nuclear negotiator and his nomination of former Iranian ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are all seen as positive indications that a peaceful outcome is more possible than at any time in the recent past. But while the broad outline of a deal can be seen, there are a number of bedeviling details as well as the issue of who makes the first move.

Iran, unlike North Korea, has continued to abide by the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). And International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are allowed to conduct inspections of some Iranian nuclear facilities. The restrictions on these inspections are worrying but so far the IAEA has yet to deem them "violations" of the NPT.

The broad outlines of an agreement exist. Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes would be acknowledged. This would include enrichment to approximately four percent for electrical generation and a limited amount up to 20 percent for medical and other research purposes. If Iran develops a plutonium power program, strict control on reprocessing must be established. Some in Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will argue that Iran has no right to any nuclear enrichment for fear of a "breakout" scenario. But this radical position is inconsistent with the NPT and would doom any negotiations.

In return Iran would commit to remaining in the NPT and abiding by all inspection requirements, including the latest protocols. The IAEA must have unfettered access to all Iranian nuclear facilities, the authority to conduct "no notice" inspections and have access to suspected weapons development sites. Once satisfied of Iranian compliance, economic sanctions related to the nuclear program would be lifted in phases. Some in Iran will resist inspections of alleged military sites on the basis of spying or revealing previous NPT breaches, or both. If the devil is in the details of any agreement, this may be the most hellish obstacle.

The timing and extent of removal of sanctions will be another devilish problem. Some can be removed by the UN, some by President Obama and some require Congressional action. And not all sanctions are nuclear related. Iranian aid for the Assad regime in Syria, support for Hezbollah, increasing ties to Hamas and a number of nefarious activities by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) deserve continued sanctions. Iran will want all sanctions removed. The U.S. will have to limit removal.

In order to restart the peace process Israel agreed to release a large number of long-held Palestinian prisoners, a painful concession. A similar gesture may help start U.S. -- Iranian negotiations on a positive note. One suggestion is to allow the sale of commercial aircraft components for safety of flight reasons. This is a long-sought Iranian goal. There could also be a positive role for a quiet trip by a personal presidential envoy to instill some confidence in our seriousness. Any such gestures, no matter how minor, will be greeted with cries of "appeasement" by the usual suspects, those whose preferred mode of communication is bombs or bombast.

Given the long list of grievances on both sides, many justified, the odds are not favorable. But there is unlikely to be a better time and the door on a peaceful solution is closing. Dysfunctional politics in the U.S. and factions in Iran and Israel could impede or destroy this best and maybe last chance.