U.S.-Iranian relations have for decades been plagued by political mistiming – whenever one side was momentarily willing to be reasonable and accommodating, the other was not. Finally, leaders in both Washington and Tehran appear to have the political space to be statesmen. Can it, finally, happen?
In Washington, a president who claims to be moderate and sensitive and peace-loving is struggling to create a substantive legacy living up to his fine words. In Tehran, a new president is looking for room to maneuver in a harsh and dangerous domestic political environment made even more tense by U.S. and Israeli threats, sanctions, and terror. It seems clear that now is the moment for the leader of the West to set the stage in some low-risk but substantive manner for mutual steps toward accommodation. On both sides, time now exists to move thoughtfully to explore the possible space of positive-sum diplomacy: moves to make the region feel more secure, moves toward greater regional nuclear transparency, moves away from the murder of scientists and other forms of terrorism, moves toward cooperation to minimize the narcotics trade, moves to enhance stability in the Afghanistan that is watching US troops depart.
Americans have wanted to see Iran move in a democratic direction, and the improvement in the electoral process this time in comparison with the last Iranian presidential election contrasts rather favorably with the profoundly anti-democratic practices in Washington of domestic spying, bailouts for billionaires, Federal refusal to bring major suspects to court for financial fraud, and rising evidence that foreclosure crime by major banks continues five years after it was exposed. Democracy, it seems clear, is a hard target to hit. If Iran has made any progress at all in a mere four years, while under constant military pressure by two nuclear powers, it is in the self-interest of the U.S. to acknowledge that progress and facilitate its continuation.
Of course, reality is vastly complicated; everyone has his own agenda. But the core game in town is pretty straightforward at the moment:
Obama is up to bat. Rouhani is playing defense. The name of the game is “Accommodation” and the prize, for Obama, should he choose to hit a home run, is a “Nixon to China” legacy. Mr. President, I hope your eye is on the ball.