Editorial: Bringing Iran back into the fold

Editorial: Bringing Iran back into the fold
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) are seated during a meeting of the foreign ministers representing the permanent five member countries of the United Nations Security Council, including Germany, at UN Headquarters in New York September 26, 2013.

In the aftermath of the tweet-enhanced theatre of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's New York visit, the key value of parsing his words would be to moderate expectations for a historic breakthrough in Iran-United States relations.

He created a contrast that couldn't be any greater next to the clumsy bluster of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, remembered for denying the Holocaust and floating his 9/11 conspiracy theory at the UN. But can President Rouhani deliver the change that he appears to promise?

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the one who calls the shots on domestic and foreign policy and his nuclear position has been known to shift. He suspended weapons-related work in 2003 but uranium enrichment was allowed to continue.

In the years to follow, UN inspectors have more than once uncovered "credible" evidence of efforts by Iran's military to build a nuclear warhead.

Now, the country is once again denouncing a nuclear arsenal in the region while insisting on its "inalienable right" to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.

Any deal, therefore, would have to include transparency and verifications provisions to satisfy the West and Israel that this is not an Iranian stratagem to escape from crippling economic sanctions.

However, the US, which gave Iran its first nuclear reactor and got it running in 1967, cannot drive too hard a bargain immediately.

President Rouhani, a centrist leader, has to contend with Iran's multi-faceted power dynamics - the theocracy is entrenched and the hard-liners control the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence services.

Although younger Iranians desire change, three decades of hate chants cannot be erased overnight. And they have cause to ask why Israel - said to have developed 100-200 nuclear warheads - has not been compelled to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which Iran signed in 1968.

Hence, the need to cut some slack for Iranian negotiators so any "heroic flexibility" shown is palatable at home as well.

In pondering containment or deterrence measures to ensure Iran's compliance, one reality that should not be overlooked is, in a sense, Iran is already a nuclear power.

Notwithstanding the Stuxnet computer worm attacks and a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, the country retains indigenous enrichment knowledge and capability.

This being its only bargaining chip, it is unlikely to surrender it entirely. Ultimately, broader engagement and closer economic links with the rest of the world might offer more enduring ways to ensure that Iranians remain committed to a path of peace, growth and regional stability.

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