WASHINGTON — Just when you think you understand how American and Iranian politics work, a lightning bolt comes from the sky to shake up conventional wisdom.
That lightning bolt appeared last month, when the Iranian people elected a new president, Dr. Hassan Rouhani, on the first ballot. No one — not even Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — expected this outcome. But the Iranian people had had enough, enough of a failing economy, enough of international isolation, enough of repression. And so they rejected the hardliners competing in the election in favor of the one candidate who called for an improved Iranian relationship with the West, a relaxation of the Iranian security state, and an improved economy to meet the needs of Iran’s youthful population.
Washington took notice.
In response to the election, 131 Members of the House of Representatives, including 17 Republicans and a majority of the Democrats — sent a letter to President Obama, asking him to use diplomatic negotiations to “…test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that ensures the country does not acquire a nuclear weapon.”
This was the single largest expression of support for active American diplomacy with Iran ever made by Congress.
The bipartisan initiative, led by Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa) and David Price (D-N.C.), reflects a growing view in Washington that the United States should take advantage of the unique opportunity presented by Rouhani’s election to move nuclear negotiations forward.
And it’s not just Congress calling for this reassessment. The administration is also weighing its options. President Obama stated the day after Rouhani’s election that the United States would “…respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate(s) them for their participation in the political process, and their courage in making their voices heard.”
Since then, preparations for renewed negotiations between the West and Iran over its nuclear program have begun.
These negotiations should be strengthened by the changing political dynamics in Washington and Tehran. It is therefore crucial to heed the advice of those who have been involved in diplomatic negotiations with recalcitrant adversaries, like Ambassadors Thomas Pickering and Bill Luers, who dealt with the Soviet Union. In a recent article for the New York Review of Books, they wrote, “With innovative and assertive diplomacy, the Obama administration can, in our view, still help change the direction of U.S.-Iran relations, reach an interim nuclear agreement, and possibly open the door to discussions on other regional and bilateral issues.”
This Washington reassessment of the new possibilities for negotiations with Iran is remarkable, especially when compared to the American political environment of less than a year ago.
It’s important to recall that last summer, some Americans were aggressively pushing for military action against Iran during the heat of the presidential race. Today, the conversation is very different. It’s widely understood now that military action against Iran should be a last resort, and that it may only delay, not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program.
The startling changes in both of our country’s political environments, after each country’s elections, therefore provide a new window of opportunity for nuclear negotiations that must be tested.
Testing this proposition will require a clear understanding of the facts about Iran’s nuclear program. Crucial is the fact that both American and Israeli intelligence leaders continue to remind us that Iran has not yet made the political decision to build a nuclear weapon, and that it is years away from having a deployable arsenal if it were to decide to pursue one. Therefore, there is still time and space available for negotiations to produce a political agreement that will verifiably prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
Because the opportunity to find a negotiated solution to the nuclear standoff still exists, discussions should continue to focus on convincing Iran that it should not have the bomb. Ultimately, Iran’s verifiable agreement to not build a bomb would be the most secure way to prevent it from acquiring one. Yet while a comprehensive nuclear deal may be too much to expect in the near term, limited confidence building agreements should be explored, to test whether this opportunity is real, and to create a new baseline of trust in the negotiations process.
To achieve such a deal would require concessions on all sides, including potentially relieving pressure on Iran — at the appropriate time — in the form of carefully calibrated sanctions relief. This is why the current political reassessment of Iran policy is so important. A deal would have to be sold to each capital, and politics would directly impact whether a deal reached at the table would be approved.
So now is, surprisingly, the right time to test the new opportunities at hand, to help us avoid both an Iranian nuclear weapon and another potentially disastrous war in the Middle East.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)