Time for a Deal with Iran

The rise of a new president provides a brief window for a change of tone.

The election of new president Hassan Rowhani in Iran has presented a rare moment of modest optimism, both in Congress and in the administration, for a deal with Iran. But if the moment is not seized, it will be short-lived.

Skeptical observers see the installation of a more moderate president as leading to more stalling by Iran, and will be quick to call for tougher action if a next round of talks does not quickly produce results. The administration should be cognizant of this limited time in its formulation of a stance concerning renewed discussions in the fall, and should begin to build support in Congress now for the presentation of a serious, mutually beneficial offer that represents both a positive show of faith, and a test of Iran’s new president.

In the lead up to Rowhani’s inauguration and beginning of the next round of nuclear talks, there is already a small window of support for diplomacy that hasn’t existed in the past. One example of this is a recent bipartisan effort in the House, launched by Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Charlie Dent (R-PA). The letter, signed by 131 members of Congress, urges the Obama administration to “pursue the potential opportunity presented by Iran's recent presidential election” and expresses the belief that “it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rowhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress.” Though a seemingly modest effort, the letter represents a rare moment of unity, both within Congress and between Congress and the administration.

This window of opportunity, however, will be short. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has expressed skepticism over the prospect of a deal. In a recent statement, he called president-elect Hassan Rowhani a “wolf in sheep's clothing,” saying the incoming Iranian leader would “smile and build a bomb.”

This view represents a chief concern among conservative lawmakers as well: the new president may represent nothing more than a distraction that will allow Iran’s nuclear program to advance. Both Israeli leaders and U.S. conservatives can be expected to react strongly to any failure to move the ball forward quickly.

But this cycle is nothing new. Each new failure in negotiations between Iran and the west has been met with pressure to react more forcibly. It is nearly two years ago that Jeffrey Goldberg wrote of an impending move by Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, a threat that, had Iran not chosen to remain shy of Netanyahu’s clearly stated red line, might have already come to pass. If a new round of negotiations in the fall fails to materialize or produces no progress, it is more than likely that we will find ourselves back to heightened tension and renewed threats of war.

This time, however, Iran is much closer to a nuclear weapon. Iran's installation of more advanced centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility and its continued accumulation of enriched uranium have shortened the timeline by which the country may be able to “break out.” And while some may argue over the finer points of what we might consider nuclear “capability,” the fact remains that at this point, only one thing is stopping Iran from a race to the bomb, and that is Iran.

The country has chosen to remain on this side of the nuclear red line for now, but few steps remain before its tip-toeing up to or over the edge could trigger a reaction that is impossible to undo. Israel’s threats of action may be dismissed as bluster, but there is no guarantee that when feeling itself backed into a corner, the country will not choose to react—particularly if it feels that the United States is strongly behind it. There is reason for the administration to take this moment of opportunity as its best, and potentially last, chance to negotiate a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program.

For this reason, it is important that the United States and its allies not be bogged down by misplaced fears that we may appear to be “negotiating with ourselves” by offering a revised position in light of the changes in Iran. A show of faith in the possibilities presented by the mostly democratic election of a more moderate president could be a first step in rebuilding a small level of trust between the two countries that has eroded, even beyond its initially pathetic state, over the course of Ahmadinejad’s two terms.

The terms of the deal an eventual deal are clear: limits to Iran’s enrichment and the implementation of more stringent inspections on its nuclear facilities in exchange for sanctions relief and a recognition of Iran’s right to enrich (something Washington has already acknowledged).