For a New Approach to Iran

Mohammad Berno/Document Iran/Corbis
Hassan Rouhani, two weeks before he won Iran’s presidential elections, speaking to his advisers before appearing at a campaign rally, Tehran, May 30, 2013

My administration is now committed to diplomacy…and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.
—President Obama, March 2009

Could this be the year for an engagement with Iran that “is honest and grounded in mutual respect,” as President Obama proposed over four years ago? That goal seems unlikely without a shift in Iranian thinking and without a change in American diplomatic and political strategy. But two developments, one in Iran and one in the region, provide reason to think that diplomatic progress might be possible.

The first is Iran’s recent presidential election, which Hassan Rouhani won thanks to an alliance between Iran’s reformist and moderate camps. Together with the departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this may provide the Obama administration the chance to start a new phase of relations with Iran. The second development is the war in Syria, which has the potential to grow into a region-wide Shia–Sunni conflict. This poses a direct threat to Iran’s vital interests, giving Tehran an incentive to reduce tensions with the international community.2

Iran and the United States have many important differences, but an agreement on Iran’s nuclear capability should be a critical priority. This could open the door to conversations with Iran regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. A functioning US-Iranian relationship could also help advance diplomatic efforts on Syria.

Despite the new opportunities and incentives, the US and Iran have deep-seated and justifiable suspicions about each other. Their shared history has been one of missed opportunities and misperceptions. To overcome this distrust will require strong leadership at a time when the stakes are growing larger. Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance, and events in Syria could well move further out of control. Without a change in direction, the US could find itself in another war in the Middle East that would further weaken its economy and its political influence.

In this article we recommend a renewed diplomatic path for achieving mutually acceptable limits on Iran’s nuclear program—limits that provide reliable insurance that Tehran will not acquire nuclear weapons. We do not underestimate the risks, internationally or domestically, of taking this approach. Yet we are convinced that the current trajectory presents higher risks and possibly catastrophic costs.

Where US–Iran Relations Stand: The Nuclear Program

The US has many reasons to be concerned about Iran’s actions. These include its threats to Israel, backing of Hezbollah, support for Hamas, treatment of its own people, and most recently, military intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But the greatest concern remains Iran’s sophisticated and expanding nuclear program.

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