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.

Is it making a nuclear weapon? Contrary to some opinions, intelligence estimates from the US, Israel, and other nations conclude that Iran’s Supreme Leader has not made the decision to build a bomb. Iran did have elements of a nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, but the Supreme Leader shut those down in 2003. Since then, the Islamic Republic has continued to increase its capability for enrichment but has not—as far as we know—restarted a weapons program. As the director for national intelligence, James Clapper, has twice testified:

We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons…. We judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.(Emphasis added)3

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors all of Iran’s declared enrichment facilities and makes regular on-site inspections, reports that there is no evidence that Iran has diverted any of the uranium that is under the surveillance of the IAEA for possible further enrichment to weapons-grade material.4 In what appears to be an act of voluntary restraint, Iran has not enriched any uranium beyond 20 percent, while to produce a nuclear weapon would require enrichment to roughly 90 percent. This stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium now amounts to 180 kilograms, which if it were increased to 240 kilograms and if it were further enriched to weapons grade would be enough for one nuclear weapon. Clapper has also testified that Iran “could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU [weapons-grade uranium] before this activity is discovered.”5

The most recent quarterly report of the IAEA, which provides new estimates of Iran’s growing stockpile of enriched uranium, states that Iran is installing, but not yet operating, new and more efficient centrifuges. The IAEA continues to express frustration that it has been unable to obtain the information it wants about Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear program. There is increasing concern about a heavy water production plant and reactor at Arak, a potential source for plutonium scheduled to begin operating within the year.6


In summary, there is no evidence that Iran has made a decision to build nuclear weapons, but it has the basic ability to do so. It can enrich uranium, was given a bomb design by A.Q. Kahn’s network, and likely engaged in some explosives testing for an implosion device, based on the principle of compressing nuclear fuel so that its density increases (as was the case with the bomb used at Nagasaki). The US and other governments have said that it would take Iran at least a year to go from a weapons decision to a usable weapon. Iran’s nuclear program could continue to expand if it can successfully utilize an advanced centrifuge design or bring the Arak reactor on line and develop a reprocessing capability to separate plutonium from the spent fuel. Iran has not resolved questions about its past nuclear activities, but its current program is under intense international scrutiny.

While Washington is seriously concerned about Iran’s nuclear intentions, Tehran has its own, different suspicions. Iran’s leaders say they are convinced that America’s real intention is to eliminate their regime. Both sides would have a better chance of reaching an acceptable, transparent, and enforceable deal if they stuck to the facts, rather than relying on unverifiable speculation about the other’s intentions.

New Developments, New Opportunities

Given the more than three decades of mutual mistrust between the US and Iran, the relationship cannot be quickly transformed. Yet there are at least two factors that offer the possibility for shifting the attitudes and behavior of both countries: Iran’s recent elections and changing circumstances in the Middle East.

The election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran offers an opening for some change in US–Iran relations. First, it means not having to deal with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust denier. That by itself opens more political space for negotiation. The president-elect is a knowledgeable former nuclear negotiator and has a good relationship with Supreme Leader Khamenei, the ultimate arbiter on Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the United States.

The elections demonstrated the moderate disposition of Iran’s public when permitted to make a choice even from among the candidates offered to them by the government. Over 70 percent of the voting population cast a ballot and over 50 percent of those voted for Rouhani. The turnout, including many young people, certainly reflected broad support from the reformists including many who participated in the Green Movement, which opposed the disputed 2009 elections. The reformist vote also showed strength in local elections. The Supreme Leader and Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard stayed largely apart from the elections. The strength of support for Rouhani has brought both relief and optimism from a population whose standard of living has been declining in a weak economy.

Rouhani’s election victory surprised analysts both in and outside of Iran. In the campaign, he represented the so-called “pragmatist-centrist” camp and was endorsed by former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. During the campaign, Rouhani called for the release of those under house arrest and greater engagement with the international community over the nuclear issue. He supports the civilian nuclear program, as do most Iranians, and he said that “we are ready to increase transparency” of the program.7 The subject of nuclear weapons, however, did not come up in the campaign. In 2011, a Rand survey found that most respondents favored the nuclear program for civilian use and a 2008 PIPA survey found that 58 percent of respondents thought that “producing nuclear weapons is against the principles of Islam.”8

In the US, advocates of a more confrontational policy suggest either that Rouhani is disingenuous or, alternatively, that he is sincere but irrelevant in the face of an all-controlling Supreme Leader. Those favoring engagement with Iran express cautious optimism but worry that the new president will be rebuffed by a distrustful international community, or that he will become the target of attacks from the most conservative elements in Iranian politics. The president-elect is a cleric, a regime insider, and the deal-maker who agreed to a freeze on enrichment in 2004 and to observe the IAEA Additional Protocol on inspections in 2003. He also, according to some hostile reports, while serving as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, approved in 1999 a crackdown on students engaging in pro-democracy demonstrations.

Following the election, Rouhani’s public remarks have been encouraging, for example in saying that “I’ll pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace, we will also reconcile with the world,” although he has also called on the United States to stop interfering with Iran’s internal affairs and cease its oppressive actions—presumably the sanctions regime. At this stage, no one can say for sure what Rouhani will try to accomplish or whether he will be successful. A prudent course would be one that tests the possibility of progress and tries to create conditions for success. We outline such a course of action later in this article.


A second factor is the turmoil in the Middle East, beginning with the overthrow of the government in Tunis and continuing with devastating violence in Syria. Some of us heard that Iran’s leaders had hoped their position would be strengthened by the uprisings, while US influence would decline.

Time has proven those expectations to be questionable. The Syrian civil war has exploded the fantasy that the rise of Arab Islamic populism was somehow a net gain for Iran. Instead, Iran finds itself the unpopular defender of Assad, its lone ally in the region. By sending Revolutionary Guard troops to fight a Sunni rebellion and defend the Alawite (an offshoot of Shiism) ruling elite in Syria, Shiite Iran and Hezbollah have introduced an increasingly dangerous, sectarian dimension to a civil war.

For Iran, the conflict in Syria is an added drain on the country’s already limited military, economic, and political resources. At its worst, the debacle in Syria—regardless of who “wins”—is inflaming a sectarian struggle throughout the region, and the continuing opposition of rebel Syrians (mainly Sunnis) supported by Qatars and Saudis, among others, could pose a direct threat to Iran and its interests. At the same time, Iran’s preoccupation with the Sunni conflict might reduce its concentration on Israel. Ahmadinejad’s bellicose language against Israel was intended to appeal to Arabs who were more hostile toward Israel than toward Iran. The conflict between Sunnis and Shias has further reduced Iran’s ability to influence such populations. Israel meanwhile can stand apart from the internecine Muslim fighting. Even though the mounting violence around it threatens Israel’s security, there could be some diminution of regional attention on Israel as the principal enemy. By fighting in Syria, Hezbollah lessened both its intense focus on Israel and its support in Lebanon. Hamas now risks losing backing from Iran because of its support of the Sunni opposition in Syria.

For the US, there are no allies in Syria, or in the broader sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias. The turmoil in Syria is already causing instability along Turkey’s southern border, as well as in Lebanon and Jordan, fragile friends of the US in the region. An emboldened Sunni opposition has renewed the violent insurgency against the Maliki government in Iraq, where the US finds itself, for a change, on the Shiite side of the sectarian divide. Like the US, although for different reasons, Iran wants a Shiite government with a stable majority in Iraq. Should the Sunni opposition in Iraq become more violent, Iran and the US might well share common interests in preserving Iraq’s stability.

In Afghanistan, the US and Iran also have interests in common. After September 11, Washington and Tehran cooperated to defeat the Taliban and to establish the newly formed Karzai government. Now, a decade later, as Washington is winding down its presence in Afghanistan, both the US and Iran share a concern that the Taliban, perhaps with al-Qaeda, will return to power. For several years the US and the Islamic Republic have unsuccessfully attempted bilateral talks to explore common ground on Afghanistan. With an Afghanistan presidential election and the US troop withdrawal looming, the need to talk has become greater.

These multiple regional changes challenge the zero-sum thinking of Iran and the United States about each other. Both countries must consider the possibility of a resurgent al-Qaeda, a reconstituted Taliban, and the prospect of a continuing multistate sectarian war stretching from Syria to Iraq and from Turkey to Gaza. Taken together with the election of a new president in Tehran, these serious and threatening shifts underscore the need for both countries to put relations on a new course.

Acting on the Opportunity: Option 1—Coercive Diplomacy

Washington could continue with the same approach it has followed since the fall of the Shah, namely, a “two-track” policy based primarily on sanctions and isolation that does not exclude diplomacy. While American-led international sanctions have damaged the Iranian economy and demonstrated the world’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, they have done little to change Iran’s actions or policies.

One alternative would be to increase pressure. And indeed, many in Washington believe that more sanctions and threats of military action are the right response. Under a policy of “coercive diplomacy,” the US would give Iran a clear ultimatum: agree to US demands on nuclear issues by a certain date, or the US will take military action.9 The former diplomat Dennis Ross wrote recently that the Obama administration should make Iran’s leaders an offer they must take or leave within a set period of time, and he implies that the option of military force should be available if they reject the offer. He contends that “coercive diplomacy succeeds when threats are believed and the game playing and manipulation stop.”10

Some advocates of coercive diplomacy argue that such an approach helped President Kennedy pressure Khrushchev to withdraw Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba. But a final agreement was reached when Kennedy gave Khrushchev a face-saving exit and offered to withdraw America’s Jupiter missiles from Turkey. A few years earlier, when China shelled the islands of Matsu and Quemoy in an attempt to intimidate and threaten Taiwan, President Eisenhower demonstrated his own desire to avoid ultimatums. Rather than define the point at which the US would take military action, he said that he would “just confuse” the press when asked what he intended to do.

Ike took to heart Clausewitz’s insight that a nation fighting for survival will persevere regardless of pressure. More coercion will only reinforce the belief among Iran’s leaders that America’s goal remains destruction of the regime, hardening their resistance and making diplomatic progress less attainable. On military action, it is worth remembering what President Johnson’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said in the 1990s about the Vietnam War. What surprised him most, he acknowledged, was “the endurance of the enemy.”11 Bundy admitted that he had placed too much faith in “the power of coercion.”

“Coercive diplomacy” is an oxymoron. Invariably the coercive side dominates the diplomatic side. Intransigent enemies who threaten US interests and security cannot be ignored; yet the United States’ experience in solving such problems by the use of coercive action such as war or sanctions that end in war has been highly costly in human lives, resources, and its global position during the past sixty years. As in Vietnam, coercion has often failed to achieve US objectives or a negotiated settlement that gave us most of what we needed. Yet the US has been impressively successful in achieving its objectives when it has placed diplomacy above punitive measures.

Pressure has helped get Iran to negotiate; but diplomatic negotiation cannot succeed unless each side gets some of what it needs and unless each side comes to believe that the other wants an agreement and is willing to comply with it. At present the US has imposed not only an arms ban but a nearly complete economic embargo on Iran, although Iran can still gain access to the US financial system through foreign banks and other institutions. We are not proposing a preemptive suspension of sanctions without firm agreements from Iran on nuclear-related issues. But we do believe that the piling on of more coercive sanctions and ultimatums, particularly when there are new hopes for the diplomatic process to get underway, will undermine or even preclude the possibility of negotiating a nuclear deal.

Acting on the Opportunity: Option 2—Active Diplomacy

With innovative and assertive diplomacy, the Obama administration can, in our view, still help change the direction of US–Iran relations, reach an interim nuclear agreement, and possibly open the door to discussions on other regional and bilateral issues.12

The United States is the dominant world power and, “negotiating from strength,” should take the initiative and communicate directly with the new leadership. The administration should demonstrate carefully that it seriously seeks a change in the relationship, not a change in the regime. That approach with the new Iranian president should begin soon, even before Rouhani is sworn in on August 3. The administration should take into account the Ayatollah Khamenei’s known conviction that the US wants regime change, while his main objective is to preserve his regime.

The approach outlined here reflects those realities. It builds on lessons learned from past meetings, including sessions held this past spring in Almaty, Kazakhstan, when Iran met with the P5+1 negotiating partners—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany. As has happened in previous negotiations, each side demanded more and offered less than the other could accept. Both sides will have to make substantial changes to their current negotiating positions.

It is possible to identify the core elements of a realistic first step for resolving the nuclear dispute. Iran would agree to limit its 20 percent enrichment program and not to stockpile such material—or alternatively, to end 20 percent enrichment in return for a guaranteed supply of fuel elements. (It is not yet confirmed that the 20 percent enriched fuel Iran has so far produced is of adequate quality for use in a reactor.) Iran would also agree not to separate plutonium—which could be used for an implosion bomb. In addition, Iran would fully open up its nuclear facilities to greater and more frequent IAEA oversight and adopt and implement the Additional Protocol (initially agreed to in 2003), which would augment the IAEA’s authority to carry out inspections.13

For its part, the US and its negotiating partners would agree to accept Iran’s peaceful nuclear program (including some enrichment), and lift some of the most severe sanctions (including sanctions on trading in precious metals, European limitations on oil imports, and some banking constraints). The US could agree to a process for the step-by-step lifting of all the UN sanctions in response to further progress. This initial agreement might provide for a verifiable trial period during which each side would be expected to comply with the interim deal.

Arriving at such an agreement will require that the White House begin now to lay the groundwork. The sequence would likely entail the following steps, each of which would be politically difficult and complicated by mutual wariness and domestic politics in both countries:

• A brief, private message of congratulations from President Obama to the new president of Iran on his taking office in August. The letter might express hopes for the prosperity and advancement of the Iranian nation without making specific requirements or proposals and without recalling past failures and frustrations.

• The administration would, through friendly states, indicate that it would be open to a meeting between Presidents Obama and Rouhani, perhaps even as early as during the September UN General Assembly. Such a meeting could take place as a side conversation or even a simple greeting during a scheduled multilateral session at the UN; it might be preceded and prepared by a meeting of foreign ministers.

• A new effort could be launched to reach the trial agreement we have outlined above. The details are important for both sides and extended discussions will undoubtedly be necessary, as will close personal attention to the process by the leaders of both countries.

• Establishing regular, even routine, bilateral discussions with Iran could be an important and parallel step. Permanent teams on both sides would be committed to exploring long-term goals and practical steps, perhaps beginning with Iraq and Afghanistan (and even Syria). Each side should commit to talks that are without preconditions and devoted to the purpose of both understanding each another’s views on the issues and finding mutually agreed upon positions.

Progress or Yet Another Missed Opportunity?

If the United States is to reach an agreement with Iran about its nuclear program, Washington will have to develop new approaches to thinking about Iran. The administration should recall JFK’s charge fifty years ago for Americans “not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”14 There is yet time for diplomacy, but the longer real negotiations are delayed, the greater is the risk of conflict in the increasingly violent environment of the Middle East. Delays could well result in a further loss of trust and misunderstanding and digging in on both sides. This in turn would make a mutually acceptable outcome more difficult.

The opportunities described in this article are not likely to appear again. This is very much the year to achieve the goal set out by President Obama four years ago of “honest engagement” leading to success.


I applaud the authors of this article for their advocacy of a more strategically creative diplomacy with Iran. The reckless alternatives that are being urged on the United States are potentially catastrophic.

Zbigniew Brzezinski

The authors make a persuasive case that Iran and the international community have a unique opportunity to resolve peacefully long-standing issues of Iran’s nuclear program and its role in the broader Middle East. With courage and creativity, it may be possible for both sides to devise a credible roadmap that, step-by-step, would resolve legitimate concerns of all the parties.

Brent Scowcroft