The first seeds of Iran’s nuclear program were planted as part of the Eisenhower-era ‘Atoms for Peace’ project, which supplied Iran’s Shah with limited nuclear technology.
Tehran insisted then, as it continues to do today, that it was only enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.
Nevertheless, international inspectors and almost every major Western government today argue that Tehran’s nuclear program exceeds its domestic energy and research needs.
The US and Israel contend that Iran could build a nuclear weapon in under a year if it chose to do so.
Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, however, has assured the international community of his promise of engagement and moderation, signifying that a new phase of conciliation may be in store for US-Iran relations.
During his recent visit to New York in September, an outreach that included the first prolonged talks between the US and Iran at foreign minister level for more than 30 years, the President charmed audiences by referring to the US as “the great nation” and by reiterating his assurance of “peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans.”
Indeed, Rouhani wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on September 20th that he wants “constructive engagement in a changed world in which cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously.”
In contrast to his predecessor’s nonnegotiable terms, Rouhani is making a point of repeatedly signaling this willingness to cut a deal over Iran’s nuclear program.
Although Rouhani is second to, and arguably maneuvered by, Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khomeini, who is openly anti-Western and anti-American, both leaders recognise that they can only stay in power by limiting internal discontent.
UN enforced sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy. Since 2011, oil exports have dropped from 2.4 million barrels a day to less than half that rate, costing Iran’s economy $70 billion.
Inflation is officially estimated at 40% but is probably much higher.
Furthermore, a quarter of young Iranians are unemployed, a dangerous consequence at a time of revolutionary unrest in the region.
President Obama, for his part, has very strong motives for a rapprochement. The most obvious of these is to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability without risking another Middle Eastern war.
There is also the alluring prospect of obtaining Iranian cooperation in the conflict in Syria, as elements of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps are fighting alongside Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
The question of Obama’s legacy also lingers; passing Iran as an unresolved problem to his successor would undoubtedly be a major failure on one of his central responsibilities.
However, if Obama were able to strike a deal, presumably enabled by stricter sanction policies, it would be a legacy-shaping triumph. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegies Endowment for International Peace describes it as a “tangible opportunity to leave a positive diplomatic legacy in the Middle East.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu has not tried to hide the fact that he is openly disdainful of the Iranian administration, including calling President Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
He reflects a widespread Israeli concern of how a US-Iranian settlement might lead to a premature easing of international sanctions and military threats designed to deny Iran the means to make a bomb.
Thus, in the upcoming Geneva conference at which Iran will present its plans for its nuclear program, President Netanyahu has instructed all Israeli diplomats to leave the chamber when Rouhani is speaking.
Israel, believed to possess the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, is accordingly prepared to “resort to unilateral military action against Iran” if it deems diplomacy inadequate.
However, the purpose of economic sanctions against Iran was to bring them to the negotiating table. Now that this has been achieved, can Israel really dismiss it all as an Iranian machination?
Although several senior US officials have argued that the US has to act militarily in Syria to preserve its credibility with Iran, these politicians must acknowledge that this is an outdated mentality. The Iranian government has been sending “remarkably conciliatory signals”.
A settlement from the Obama Administration, signaling to the Iranian people that they can have a better future if the regime credibly forswears nuclear weapons, is only reasonable.
Photographs: www.rouhani.ir, U.S. Department of State