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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Obama’s Renewed Outreach To Iran

The one constant in the West’s confrontation with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program has been the Iranians’ success at delaying any American acknowledgement that the diplomatic phase may have finally run its course. All the while, of course, Iran has steadily progressed in its march toward a nuclear weapons capacity.

For all the talk of lines in the sand and crossing red lines, Iran seems to have weathered the unprecedented economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and others and thumbed its nose at the prospect of military action. In fact, the public pronouncements by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rouhani, are replete with calls for diplomatic cooperation between Iran and the international community based on respect for Iran’s right to nuclear power and parity in its dealings with the West.

So for Iran, clearly, the game continues. Unfortunately, it seems that President Obama has seized on the advent of Mr. Rouhani as yet another reason to give diplomacy more time – and effectively, more time for Tehran to move farther along the road to becoming a nuclear power.

In his first news conference after his election in mid-June, President Rouhani said he wanted to improve his country’s relations with the United States, referring to the thirty four-year-old estrangement between the U.S. and Iran as “an old wound that must be treated,” but went on to describe several preconditions that needed to be met for a “constructive dialogue.”

“First,” he said, “America must not interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs…. They have to recognize our nuclear rights, put away bullying policies against Iran. And if such, and they have good intent, then the situation will change.” He added, however, that Iran had no plans to suspend uranium development, adding, “Those days are behind us.”

In a speech within hours of his inauguration last Sunday, Mr. Rouhani again called for a diplomatic process leading to better relations between Iran and the West, again laying down some conditions:

Constructive interaction on equal footing and based upon mutual respect and common interest will be the basis of our relations with other countries, and we will move to enhance our ties proportionate to the behavior and attitude of the other sides…. I frankly say that if you want a proper response, speak to the Iranian nation not with the language of sanction, but with the language of respect.

He went on to pledge to take “new steps on the scene of international relations in a bid to enhance Iran’s dignity and position based on national interests and removal of the present cruel sanctions.”

For its part, the Obama administration seemed to be inclined to be receptive. White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Rouhani’s inauguration “presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concern over Iran’s nuclear program. Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to the issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.”

It will be recalled that while campaigning for office in 2008, Mr. Obama expressed a desire to engage in talks with Iran without preconditions, and following his inauguration he signaled a willingness to dialogue with Iranian leaders willing to “unclench their fists.” That effort was rebuffed by Iran.

It’s not always easy to parse verbal exchanges between governments in order to glean whether the back and forth is part of a diplomatic minuet or whether something more substantial is afoot. But it does seem that the U.S. sees some promise in Mr. Rouhani’s election and is taking a wait and see attitude. And the fact is, President Obama may have little choice but to give Mr. Rouhani some time if there is even a glimmer of hope of avoiding a military confrontation.

But we’ve seen this movie before and the clock on Iran’s development of a nuclear capacity continues ticking. Indeed, Mr. Rouhani was Iran’s lead negotiator in its talks with the U.S. and the West. It was he who was in the forefront of the stalling that allowed Iran to continue its development of a nuclear capacity. And Mr. Rouhani, even if he’s sincere about seeking better relations, seems hardly ready for any serious concessions.

Again, however, President Obama’s only realistic option for now may be to give the new Iranian president a chance to prove – or discredit – himself with actions rather than words.

It’s Congress that may be showing a possible way forward. The House of Representatives last week voted 400-20 to substantially ratchet up the sanction regime imposed on Iran. The Senate is expected to pass a similar bill in September shortly before the next scheduled round of talks between Iran and the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

In addition, 76 senators from both sides of the aisle have written a letter to President Obama pointing out that while Mr. Rouhani has “pledged reengagement” with the international community, “Iran has used negotiations in the past to stall for time.” Thus, they urged the president “to bring a renewed sense of urgency to the process…. We need to understand quickly whether Tehran is at last ready to negotiate seriously.”

To be sure, President Rouhani is calling for engagement based on mutual respect and may well pull back if attempts are made to cow him into submission. But if we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that the Iranians won’t do anything unless they feel they have to. So continuing to hammer their economy and insisting that they shut down their nuclear efforts, all the while dangling possible regularization of relations, seems the prudent way to avoid military action. Anything less will be perceived as weakness and unquestionably counterproductive.

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