Editorial: After years of mutual distrust, can U.S., Iran achieve a breakthrough?

Published: Friday, Sep. 27, 2013 - 12:00 am

Finally, a possible diplomatic opening that, if it succeeds, could make the volatile Middle East region more stable and avoid nuclear proliferation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met on Thursday with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who studied at San Francisco State University – along with the foreign ministers from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

This marks one of the highest level U.S.-Iran face-to-face discussions since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and three decades of quasi-war since then. We should know within weeks whether the “cautious optimism” expressed all around goes anywhere. This opening provides the best opportunity in the last 34 years to move forward on a host of vexing issues, and the United States is right to pursue talks, not to shun them.

What makes the landscape different today?

•  Election of Iran’s new president: Hassan Rouhani, who was inaugurated in August, was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005 when it suspended its nuclear program. In New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting, Rouhani told The Washington Post’s David Ignatius he wants to move quickly to get the nuclear issue settled and move on to other issues: “The shorter it is the more beneficial it is to everyone” – three months to six months, not years, he said.

In Iran, however, Ali Hosseini Khamenei is the supreme leader with final decision-making authority. Rouhani told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour he has Khamenei’s full backing: “The supreme leader, I can tell you, has given permission for my government to freely negotiate on these issues.”

•  Sanctions: These are costing Iran up to $5 billion a month in lost revenue, according to U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen. Iran wants to deal.

•  Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria: Current events have weakened Iran’s ties to the militant Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas groups, a persistent source of terror attacks. That provides an opening for shaking up things for the better in the Middle East.

Hezbollah, founded in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, was getting arms from Iran through Syria, plus funding support of $60 million to $100 million a year. The civil war in Syria has disrupted arms shipments and financial support has declined significantly as Iran is squeezed by sanctions. “Iran’s capacity to fund Hezbollah has been impaired,” says Cohen.

Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, lost Iran’s funding support and military cooperation because it is supporting the opposition against the Assad regime in Syria.

Iran has become even further isolated internationally as the lone nation publicly supporting the brutal Assad regime.

These developments provide some opportunity for the United States to move on talks for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and on a settlement to the Syrian civil war.

The United States and the five other powers provided an outline for a nuclear deal in February: Iran would limit enrichment of uranium to lower than 5 percent, the level needed for energy production; halt production of 20 percent enriched uranium; close the facility where that work is done; and, ship that stockpile out of the country. In return, Iran would get relief on sanctions.

And, as President Barack Obama said in his address to the United Nations on Tuesday, “To succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.”

The meetings this week will test whether a U.S.-Iran rapprochement really is possible. A “transparent and verifiable” agreement in three to six months on Iran’s nuclear program certainly would be welcome.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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