While all eyes are on the UN and the bloggersphere is all aTwitter about Syria and chemical weapons, a far bigger story may be developing that will reshape the Middle East.
It is well known that Iran supplies weapons and soldiers to Syria. The Wall Street Journal has now documented Iran's growing operational control over the Syrian armed forces. But ever since the surprise landslide election of the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani, there have been unmistakable signals that the new Iranian leadership wants an accommodation with the West. It began with his selection of a nuclear dove, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as his Foreign Minister. He then replaced all the previous hardline officials involved in Iran's nuclear policies and put Zarif directly in charge, taking control from the conservative Supreme National Security Council.
Signs of a split between Iranian moderates who want to normalize relations with America and the West and the ultra-conservative clerical establishment are everywhere. It began when Rouhani's patron, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, criticized the Syrian government for gassing its own people. Even when President Rouhani condemned the use of chemical weapons, he pointedly did not blame the rebels. In case of an American attack, he offered only to provide food and medical assistance to the Assad regime.
For the past two decades American foreign policy experts dreamed of weaning Syria from Iran's orbit. Now, ironically, an opposite policy may represent a tantalizing opportunity. In return for Iran ending its support of the Assad regime in Syria and agreeing to halt its production of highly enriched uranium, the United States and its allies could offer to end its sanctions, release frozen Iranian assets, end all threats of military intervention and normalize relations. This would not only bring an end to the ghastly Syrian conflict, but it would eliminate the greatest threat to the region, Iran's development of nuclear arms. In one grand bargain, an agreement could be reached that removed the nuclear threat to Israel and the dangers associated with a promised Israeli preemptive strike, while bringing Tehran back into the community of nations.
In the past few days there have been a flurry of good-will gestures coming from Tehran including the release of eleven political prisoners. President Obama responded to Iran's foreign policy makeover with a letter congratulating President Rouhani on his election. The Iranian leader then wished "all Jews a blessed Rosh Hashana." But most importantly, Iran's "Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave his blessing to Rouhani's "heroic flexibility" and endorsed his new "rational foreign policy".
The diplomatic choreography now moves to the UN. Foreign Minister Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton are to meet in New York on September 23rd and there is hope the two lead negotiators will be able to agree on a new date and venue for resumed P5+1 talks on Iran's nuclear program. President Rouhani is scheduled to speak at the United Nations on September 24th, the same day that President Obama addresses the General Assembly. The Presidents should meet. The cards are lined up for a grand bargain. It's time to deal.
David Hoffman is the Founder of Internews and the author of Citizens Rising: Independent Journalism and the Spread of Democracy (CUNY Journalism Press 2013)