An Obama-Rouhani Communique: The World's Best Chance at Peace

In a dramatic departure from its historically bellicose stance on Iran, up to 131 members of the U.S. Congress have asked the Obama administration to reach out to Iran's new president, in a bid to diplomatically resolve the nuclear issue. Noting the extreme urgency of resuming the diplomatic process to resolve the Iran nuclear impasse, and cautiously welcoming the prospects of a better negotiating atmosphere under Iran's newly-elected president, world powers (the so-called P5+1) have also indicated their eagerness to resume nuclear talks shortly after Hassan Rouhani's inauguration in August.

Securing a historic victory in the first round of celebrated presidential elections held in early June, Rouhani is widely hailed as a moderate politician, who has not only pushed for a relaxation of a 'securitized' environment at home and greater socio-cultural freedom for the teeming youth, but has, more crucially, promised to resolve the nuclear deadlock in order to resume Iran's normal economic life amid rising concerns over inflation and currency devaluation primarily due to unilateral sanctions imposed by the West since late-2011.

Rouhani's election also represents a symbolic victory for the system, restoring a great measure of legitimacy after the contentious aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections. To the delight of tens of millions of Iranians, Rouhani's elections has also inspired historic success in the realm of sports, with the country, to the surprise of many, securing a dreamy qualification for the 2014 World Cup (outmaneuvering Asian football giant South Korea), staging an impressive performance at the 2013 FIVB World League (defeating the likes of Italy, Cuba, and Germany), winning the 2013 William Jones Cup (defeating the U.S. basketball team), and widely expected to win the upcoming FIBA Asia basketball championship.

"We look to a new Government in Iran to give a comprehensive response to the [P5+1] proposal for a confidence building measure, and to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency," Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague told the British parliament in early-July, noting the potential for a path-breaking change under a new Iranian president.

Yet, unsurprisingly, Iran hawks have begun a campaign of disinformation against Rouhani, questioning his ability and willingness to put to rest key issues over Iran's nuclear intentions and enrichment activities. But contrary to the misleading portrayal of the Iranian top leadership as a monolithic entity unwilling to resolve outstanding questions over its nuclear program, a closer look reveals a much more nuanced picture of dynamic, consociational leadership underpinned by pragmatism, pride and identity politics, which, in turn, demands an equally nuanced response form the West, especially Washington.

And now that the West faces an incredibly popular and diplomatically articulate president in Rouhani, who is determined to lift punitive sanctions and restore Iran's place of pride among nations, it has an unprecedented opportunity to put the nuclear crisis to rest, and usher in a new Iran of Iran-West relations for the sake of regional security and international peace.

This is precisely why the Obama administration needs to seriously contemplate a Tehran Communiqué, which not only offers a step-by-step resolution to the nuclear issue, but also provides the platform for transcending a three-decade-long animosity in Iran-U.S. relations. Four decades into President Nixon's fateful meeting with Chairman Mao -- long viewed as the radical leader of an aggressive state intent on expelling the U.S. from Western Pacific --, the Obama administration is also facing a similar critical historical juncture, necessitating the re-accommodation of one of the world's longest-living civilizations into the international order.

There is an undeniable strategic imperative for such a deal: while economic sanctions against Iran have morphed into a quasi-existential question for the Iranian state, and the prospects of war are unthinkable, the ongoing crises in the Middle East underline Tehran's indispensability to stability in one of the world's most strategic but volatile regions. As the saying goes, there are neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, but only permanent interests.

Reciprocal Compromise Only!

While analysts and Western officials have consistently brushed aside the outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated calls for substantive negotiations to reverse Iran sanctions in exchange for greater transparency and enrichment curbs, it is the statements of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields the final say on national security matters and nuclear policy, that has increasingly absorbed the attention of global powers and the mainstream media.

Earlier this year, in the run up to the Almaty II nuclear talks, Ayatollah Khamenei made it very clear that the only way for Iran to resolve the crisis is if and only if the West stops "point[ing] the gun at Iran and say either negotiations or we pull the trigger," because "pressure and negotiations do not go together." The supreme leader has ruled out "negotiation for the sake of negotiation," which, according to him, only allows the West to use negotiations as a tactical move to "sell [its] gesture to the world."

A careful examination of the statements of Iran's top leaders reveals that the country -- on all levels of leadership -- has consistently and unequivocally ruled out unilateral concessions on its prized nuclear project, no matter how the West continues to tighten the noose around the whole country. But by no means does this suggest that Iran is unwilling to entertain a mutually-satisfying deal that sees Iran secure its inalienable rights to peaceful enrichment under the Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and rollback suffocating sanctions in exchange for an Additional Protocol (AP) that ensures, among other things, a more intrusive inspections regime and stricter enrichment curbs at 3-5 percent purity levels. In this light, nothing captures Iran's emerging nuclear position better than Rouhani's catchy campaign slogan: "It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people's lives and livelihoods are also running."

The economy has consistently topped Iranian elections' agenda, and the Iranian people overwhelmingly voted for Rouhani in order to restore economic security. The current sanctions track has become untenable, hurting both ordinary Iranians as well as major Iranian trade and energy partners, from Germany, Italy and France to South Korea and Japan. Dubbed as "Diplomat Sheikh," Rouhani -- as Iran's former top nuclear negotiator in early 2000s -- was instrumental in diffusing tensions over Iran's nuclear program, successfully lobbying for a temporary modus vivendi with European powers, until the West's subsequent calls for a total nuclear suspension smashed the whole edifice of nuclear negotiations, favoring Iranian hardliners calling for unrestrained enrichment. And the rest is history.

After eight years on the sidelines, however, Rouhani -- fusing pragmatism and reform -- has returned to the center stage, intent on unlocking a brewing crisis that has undermined Iran's economy and an otherwise synergistic strategic relationship between Tehran and western powers vis-à-vis multiple crises, from Syria to Afghanistan. The fact of the matter is that Iran is as much a status quo power as it is a revisionist one: it detests its exclusion form the Persian Gulf strategic theatre, but has prized stability in its immediate peripheries of Afghanistan, the Caucaus, and post-Saddam Iraq. And this is where there is a perfect convergence of interests between Tehran, Brussels, and Washington.

"On a personal level I found him warm and engaging. He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief," Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described Rouhani, with whom he had sustained nuclear negotiations in the early 2000s. French President Francois Hollande went even further, welcoming Rouhani's victory by reversing Paris' longstanding position of rejecting Iran's participation in the Geneva Talks on Syria.

Rouhani may not have the final say on the nuclear issue, but as the overwhelmingly elected president he has the momentum to lobby for a change in the tone of nuclear negotiations. Unlike Ahmadinejad, who was at the crossfire of internal factional squabbles, Rouhani represents a "consensus candidate," who has had maintained strong ties with all relevant centers of power. And his diplomatic experience gives him enough latitude to introduce much-needed changes in Iran's negotiation strategy. So, quite naturally, a grand Rouhani diplomatic victory in nuclear negotiations would be largely seen as a regime victory, not a factional issue for sabotage.

But most importantly, Rouhani's presidency represents an unprecedented chance for breaking the impasse, precisely because the Iranian regime as a whole has seen the importance of accommodating voices of moderation and a pragmatic approach to the nuclear file.

The political uncertainties rattling Iranian allies from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon -- compounded by the ouster of Islamist Morsi by elements backed by the reactionary, anti-Iranian Arab sheikhdoms that favor a return to pre-revolution Egyptian policies -- has also compounded Iran's regional strategic dilemma, necessitating the opening of communication channels with great powers seeking regional stability. The growing pressure on Iran's oil exports to top customers has also undermined its leverage vis-à-vis emerging powers. In short, the time is ripe for a strategic reset.

A consistent feature of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the regime's undying instinct for self-preservation. Since the 1979 revolution, each of period ideological excess has been counter-balanced by a succeeding period of moderation and realism -- simply because even in the Islamic Republic, the instinct for self-preservation and the concept of expediency (Maslaha) have always trumped policies that endanger the Iranian nation-state.

Favoring the pressure track of sanctions over a military intervention, it is not yet clear whether Obama is contemplating a grand bargain with Tehran, but the glimmer of an opportunity seems there. What is certain is that Rouhani represents Washington's best chance for peace.