AT LAST, AFTER more than 30 years of isolation since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the U.S.-installed Shah, American and Iranian officials are talking to each other. The late September telephone conversation between President Obama and Iranian President Rouhani was an important first step. If the two sides can reach an agreement on ending the nuclear standoff, it could pave the way for other forms of cooperation that could significantly improve regional and global security.
Because of the historical mistrust between the United States and Iran that goes at least as far back as the 1954 CIA-backed coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, achieving progress will require diplomatic flexibility on both sides. The core objectives of the international community are to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to guarantee that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. This can be accomplished by convincing Tehran to accept binding limits on its nuclear program and by robust monitoring mechanisms to guarantee the absence of military-related activities.
Iran’s objectives are to gain international acceptance of its right to develop nuclear energy, including uranium enrichment, and to obtain relief from crippling sanctions. If Tehran takes steps toward accepting limits and agreeing to enhanced transparency and monitoring, Washington should offer an initial partial suspension of sanctions and pledge to lift additional sanctions as progress proceeds. This would help jump-start the talks and strengthen President Rouhani’s hand in the face of hardliners.
The initial suspension might aim to ease prohibitions on the financing of exports to Iran of specified civilian goods, including medical supplies, agricultural products, consumer goods, and related non-military goods and services. The European Union and the U.N. Security Council could adopt parallel measures.