Javad Zarif, now Iran's foreign minister, and I laughed at the improbable trajectory of our lives since we were both students in Colorado. He thought it ironic that I would write my doctoral dissertation on the history of American socialism. I asked him what he had written his about. He rocked back in his chair and laughed, "Would you believe it?" he asked. "It was about the futility of nuclear weapons, how useless they are." No laughing matter. When the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani was unexpectedly elected president in a landslide, he chose the nuclear dove, Zarif, as his foreign minister. But equally important, he 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.
Yesterday Zarif met with Secretary of State John Kerry and with foreign ministers of the so-called 5+1 countries -- the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany -- to restart stalled negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. It was a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough after a whirlwind charm offensive by President Rouhani. The stakes could not be higher. With Israel, itself an undeclared nuclear power, poised to attack Iran's uranium processing plants and the entire Middle East close to an internecine war between Shiites, supported by Iran, and Sunnis, backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the world is closer to a regional war than it's ever been since World War II.
The hopeful U.S.-Iranian dialogue goes well beyond the nuclear issue. Iran is Syria's biggest backer and thousands of Iran's Revolutionary Guard soldiers have joined the fight to defend President Assad's Alawite regime. Even more, as the Wall Street Journal reported, Iran is increasingly asserting operational control over the Syrian armed forces. With the accelerated UN-backed plan to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks, there is hope that the intractable military standoff could be resolved through peace negotiations in Geneva, which UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon suggested could start as early as November. Obviously, there is much that stands in the way of a peaceful end to this horrific tragedy. But by embedding the Syrian conflict in a larger context, a tactic well known to mathematicians, there could be a solution. Russia, an indispensable player now, has insisted that iran be invited to the peace process, a reasonable request given it is a major belligerent like Syria itself. But a basis for the Geneva conference is that all participants accept the requirement for a transitional government without the hated Assad. Should Iran accept this condition and the West agree to its participation, Assad's days would be numbered.
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. It is time for all sides to seize the moment and not let this historic opportunity slip. The consequences are too great.