If at First Rouhani Doesn't Succeed

The Case for Optimism About U.S.-Iranian Relations

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

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