Three months ago we wrote that the election of Hassan Rouhani as the President of Iran presented a golden opportunity for improved relations between Iran and the United States. We noted his moderate positions, experience in nuclear negotiations, and public promise to release political prisoners. Since that time we have seen many positive overtures from Rouhani as well as other leaders of the Iranian government. On September 18th, a dozen political prisoners, including award winning women’s rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh were released. This action has been widely regarded as a pointed overture aimed at improving relations with the west prior to Tuesday’s meeting at the United Nations.
The New York Times cites a number of positive signals on the part of Iran:
“In a near staccato burst of pronouncements, statements and speeches by the new president, Hassan Rouhani; his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif; and even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leadership has sent Rosh Hashana greetings to Jews worldwide via Twitter, released political prisoners, exchanged letters with President Obama, praised ‘flexibility’ in negotiations and transferred responsibility for nuclear negotiations from the conservatives in the military to the Foreign Ministry.”
President Rouhani represents the best opportunity for improved relations between Iran and the U.S. in decades. He has stated unequivocally that Iran has no desire to develop a nuclear weapons program, despite the bellicose and confrontational language coming from Israel, the only country in the region with nuclear weapons. Since 2010 the United States has been punishing the people of Iran through harsh economic sanctions in an alleged effort to dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Congress has passed several anti-Iran resolutions that serve to reinforce an adversarial relationship. Just days ago, Senator Lindsey Graham and Representative Trent Franks announced their intention to introduce a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Iran.
On the eve of President Rouhani’s first visit to the United Nations, the United States has done little to indicate that it wants to improve relations. The lack of positive response to Iran serves as a slap in the face to their diplomatic gestures. Now is the time for President Obama to show some diplomatic maturity and reach out. At the very least, he should be openly calling for a one-on-one meeting with President Rouhani in New York. He should acknowledge the positive gestures coming from Iran, and should reciprocate with some of his own, including a call for a return to diplomatic relations and restoration of embassies. Then the White House should begin pushing for an end to the economic sanctions and publicly rebuff hawkish measures such as the Graham/Franks resolution.
How President Obama responds to the diplomatic overtures of Iran will say a lot about his real intentions towards that government. He may never have a better chance than now.
~ Leah Bolger serves as Secretary of Defense in the Foreign Affairs Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet.
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