Icy US relations with Iran still far from thawing

Oct. 7, 2013
With the US and Iran, warmth does not mean thaw.

With the US and Iran, warmth does not mean thaw.

In New York for a United Nations event, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US President Barack Obama hinted at improving relations icy since 1979.

Speeches by both leaders hinted at reconciliation. Rouhani even suggested a way forward: prompt settlement of the dispute over Iran's nuclear development.

Caution is in order. A few observations:

• A bogus argument persists that Iran has no peaceful use for nuclear energy because it possesses so much oil and gas. Even before the revolution, Iranian planners pursued domestic nuclear power to reserve oil and—especially—natural gas for export. That doesn't mean the Islamic Republic never has wanted nuclear weapons or doesn't now do so; it means a country can have oil and gas and still harbor legitimate ambitions for nuclear power.

• Rouhani offers a refreshing change in style from his bombastic predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But he can't change the substance of Iranian foreign relations. Only Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei can do that.

• If Khamenei wants to improve relations with the US, a likely reason is economic pressure from international sanctions. The US imposed its first sanctions in 1979. The European Union and United Nations have joined the effort. Sanctions recently were expanded to impede Iranian access to international banking and insurance. The broadened effort seems to have worked.

• Nuclear development isn't the only issue. Iran has been complicit in international terrorism and destabilization around the Middle East.

• Bilateralism could be dangerous. The US has important friends in the Middle East gravely worried about any expansion of Iranian influence—Saudi Arabia and Israel, to name just two.

And a question: Might Rouhani and his boss think Obama will rush into a deal confined to a possibly exaggerated nuclear threat and sanctions Iran needs to shed in order to regain stature lost over Syria?

Rapprochement is a worthy goal. While pursuing it with Iran, though, the US must be careful not to ignore too much.