Hassan Rouhani is shown on video monitors as he addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is shown on video monitors as he addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013.
Ray Stubblebine / Courtesy Reuters

More than at any time since a group of Iranians occupied the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979, the stars for a diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and Iran are aligned. As a result of Iran’s presidential election in June 2013, the country now has a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, who is willing to do business with the United States. At the United Nations yesterday, he declared that “nuclear arms have no place in Iran’s security” doctrine and that Iran is fully prepared to settle its nuclear dispute with the West. The United States is apparently ready to reciprocate. In his own speech at the United Nations, U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized that the United States does not seek regime change in Tehran and that, once Iran’s nuclear dispute is settled, the two countries “can have a different relationship.”

Obama and Rouhani are uniquely positioned to reach a detente and establish their historical legacies. But to achieve this Herculean task, they must first lower their expectations and realize that bilateral talks cannot end years of animosity. Rather, they would constitute one giant step toward establishing a new mechanism to manage their conflict.

In recent days, the Rouhani administration has sent a flurry of signals to the West that it is willing to open up the political process and moderate Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies, including welcoming and responding to private letters from Obama and releasing a few political prisoners. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has even declared that Iran is ready to show "heroic flexibility" in dealing with the West and has given Rouhani full authority to negotiate, something he has not previously given to any president. Most of this change in posture is a direct result of the 2013 presidential election, in which the Iranian people expressed a strong desire for their country to end its confrontational and counterproductive foreign policy and throw the troubled economy a life raft.

There is plenty of skepticism about Iran's new posture. In Israel, some conservative commentators have dismissed it as a stalling tactic to dupe the West as it builds a nuclear bomb. They argue that Iran is unlikely to offer meaningful concessions on its nuclear program. Yuval Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, has even argued that negotiation is futile because Iran is supposedly only six months away from building a bomb. In the United States, meanwhile, conservatives accuse Obama of appeasing Iran.

It is difficult to know Iran and the United States’ real intentions. But there are two ways to find out. The first is to actually begin direct bilateral negotiations. The other is to invite Iran to the Geneva II conference on the future of Syria.

First, negotiations: Washington must go in with a realistic assessment of what Rouhani can offer without inciting a backlash at home. Despite sanctions, explicit threats of force, and computer sabotage, Iran has made remarkable progress in its nuclear program. Today, it has more than 11,000 centrifuges spinning in its nuclear facilities, compared to 1,400 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. Iran has endured crippling sanctions to make this progress. Those who oppose negotiations now, namely the hard-line conservatives, have a privileged position in Iran’s multi-center power structure, especially within the Revolutionary Guards and the intelligence agencies. Rouhani’s ability to offer major concessions to the United States is therefore limited.

Moreover, Khamenei, the ultimate decision-maker, has strong reservations about the United States’ reliability as a negotiating partner. He is waiting to see whether Washington really wants to change the nature of its relationship with Iran. As he has talked about flexibility, he also has noted that “Sometimes a wrestler shows flexibility for technical reasons, but he doesn’t forget who his opponent is, and what his real goal is.” The Revolutionary Guard Corps, too, has warned Rouhani that he should not be deceived by Washington’s apparent openness to talks. And there is also the possibility of non-state actors trying to subvert any rapprochement with the United States.

So far, Rouhani has promised more transparency in Iran’s nuclear program and more intrusive international inspections. There are speculations in Western media that he might consider closing the underground Fordow nuclear facility, restricting enrichment at 20 percent level, and reducing Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. Although Rouhani has explicitly stated that Iran is not making a bomb or desirous of making one, he has emphatically insisted that the United States must recognize Iran’s inalienable right to enrich uranium on its own soil. He has also made clear that the West must grant Iran major concessions by lifting some of the sanctions. Without those, Rouhani will be undermined by his domestic opponents and the negotiations will quickly hit a dead end. In that case, the only alternatives left will be continued containment of Iran or war.

Second, Syria: The United States and Iran can also use engagement on Syria to test each other’s sincerity.

Iran is one of the key players in Syria’s bloody civil war. Through thick and thin, it has been the most stalwart supporter of the Assad regime. For Iran, Syria remains a major front in its geo-strategic competition with the United States, its cold war with Saudi Arabia, and its battle against Sunni extremists. It is unlikely that Rouhani will be able to change Iran’s Syria strategy entirely, but his administration is much more likely to be flexible about the future of Assad’s regime than its predecessor.

There are signals that Iran is already moderating its policy toward Syria. For one thing, Iran’s reaction to a possible U.S. military strike against Syria was uncharacteristically taciturn, given that Iran had previously declared that attack on Syria would constitute an attack on Iran. For another, Iran has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, although the Islamic Republic has not explicitly denounced the Assad regime. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Chair of the Expediency Council, has reportedly blamed the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against its own people. But his office later denied the report. It appears that he might have been preparing the leadership to distance itself from Assad, especially considering that Iran has praised the Russian-American deal to dismantle Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. In fact, Iran claims to have played a constructive role bringing about that deal.

Iran’s ultimate objective is not the protection of Assad, but rather the protection of the Syrian security and military forces, with which Tehran has close ties. For Iran, Syria is a reliable conduit for the transfer of arms and money to Hezbollah, which gives Iran strategic depth in the heart of the Arab world. Like Washington, Iran does not favor the total dismantling of the Syrian state, which would lead to chaos and the empowerment of radical Sunni organizations. Both Iran and the United States want to avoid that. They also believe that only political negotiations will bring the devastating Syrian civil war to an end.

Iran surprised the United States by playing a constructive role at the 2001 Bonn Conference on the future of Afghanistan. Iran could be willing to play the same role at the Geneva II Conference, if it is invited. Iran has some legitimate interests in Syria and Lebanon. The West should understand that the Islamic Republic will not cease its support for Hezbollah, and it will do everything it can to protect its close relationship with the Syrian state, with or without Assad at its helm. But it might be ready to work with the United States on issues of overlapping interest.

It is time for cautious optimism that, after three decades of mutual hostility, the United States and Iran could open a new chapter. There are major hurdles on the path toward a rapprochement, and both sides must have strategic patience. If it sounds difficult, that is because it is. Nevertheless, even the earliest attempts to improve ties will have their rewards. Rapprochement could start to change the landscape of the Middle East, allowing the United States to proceed with its pivot toward Asia. It would give the United States a new partner in the war against extremism and would profoundly reduce the Sunni-Shia tensions. It would ease American withdrawal from Afghanistan in December 2014. It would also begin to open up Iran’s vast oil and gas reserves to Western companies. Better ties between the United States and Iran would give Washington a new lever to slow down Russian expansionism in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The benefits for Iran are equally compelling: The crippling sanctions could be lifted. Iran’s isolation could end. It could become reintegrated into the global economy, once more attracting foreign investment.

For those reasons, Obama and Rouhani must now show political courage and strategic imagination to make the first step and see what the other is made of.

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  • MOHSEN MILANI is Professor of Politics and the Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida. Follow him on Twitter @MilaniMohsen.
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