President Barack Obama acknowledged in his speech before the UN General Assembly Tuesday that “the roadblocks may prove to be too great” to resolve differences with Iran over its nuclear program. But he also said he firmly believes “a diplomatic path must be tested.”
Decades of mutual belligerance and mistrust could continue to derail any negotiations regarding Iran’s alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons. But the recent election of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and overtures from the highest levels of leadership in Iran suggest that this time might be different.
Rouhani, the most moderate candidate on the ballot and something of a surprise winner in the presidential election, has stated that Iran is ready to talk and negotiate with the West regarding the nuclear program. While he asserts that Iran has the right to enrich uranium as a source of energy for peaceful purposes, he denies that Iran intends or has ever sought to develop nuclear weapons.
That, of course, is the same tack Iran has taken in the past. But Rouhani has offered hints that Iran’s desire to resolve differences with the West, particularly the United States, is sincere this time.
There also is evidence that Rouhani speaks not only for himself but also with the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The willingness of Khameini to give Rouhani the latitude to negotiate could well indicate the toll taken by painful economic sanctions instituted by the U.S. and its allies.
While the effort to reach an agreement might fall apart or turn out to be simply a stalling tactic on the part of Iran, the possibility of reconciliation between the two nations is too tempting to ignore. Obama, no doubt, would hate to squander what might be a moment of detente similar to the era in which Mikhail Gorbachev oversaw the dissolution of the Soviet Union and established peaceful relations with the West.
A diplomatic settlement with Iran not only could remove the nuclear threat but also might enlist Iran as a partner in forcing Syria to relinquish its weapons of mass destruction, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue and helping bring greater stability to the region. With that in mind, Obama directed Secretary of State John Kerry to lead discussions with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a signal that both nations are willing to put their highest-level diplomats in charge of the talks.
Obama, however, also stressed that words from Iran must “be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.” Sanctions will remain in place until Iran demonstrates its willingness to relinquish the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Obama also directly addressed the issue of Syria’s weapons in his speech, demanding a strong UN Security Council resolution requiring the Bashar Assad regime to submit its chemical weapons supplies to international control or face tough consequences. And Obama reiterated the U.S. commitment to negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
But most attention undoubtedly will be focused on the potential for a breakthrough with Iran. If successful, as Obama noted, a settlement could have a “profound and posibive impact on the entire Middle East and north Africa.”
There are no guarantees diplomacy will pay off. But the United States has to give it a try.