Mr. Obama, meet Mr. Rouhani

Talking is the only way to peacefully resolve disputes with Iran

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It is difficult to imagine why President Barack Obama would not meet with the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, while both are in New York for the U.N. General Assembly this week.

The American right expresses concern that Mr. Obama might sell the farm and part of the river to the Iranian president. That reflects a monumental misunderstanding of how American foreign policy works.

Even if he wanted to, Mr. Obama couldn't undo in a Nixon-like China swoop 34 years of legislative and other barriers that the United States has put up in sanctions and other measures between America and Iran. The chances of Mr. Obama -- a man who spends most of his time arm-wrestling with the scaly denizens of Congress and the rest of "This Town" Washington -- being charmed into some kind of foolish deal by Mr. Rouhani are absolutely zero.

What he could usefully do is meet the man politely and open the door to possibly fruitful dialog, especially on the subject of Iran's nuclear program, ostensibly America's primary concern with Iran.

A second reason given for Mr. Obama not to meet with Mr. Rouhani is that it would annoy Israel. A number of Israeli leaders have made it clear that they would like the United States to attack Iran, or to acquiesce in Israel attacking Iran, which would serve the same purpose by getting the United States into a war. The alternative is to have the United States, other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (China, France, Russia and Britain), plus Germany, arrive at some sort of agreement with Iran to ease economic sanctions in exchange for Iran putting serious limits -- with strict verification -- on its nuclear program.

Virtually the last thing in the world the United States needs at this point is another Middle East war. We completed our Calvary in Iraq in 2011. We are on schedule to complete the war in Afghanistan next year. We seem to have managed to slip the noose on getting dragged into a war in Syria -- which Israel wanted and lobbied the U.S. Congress hard for -- through adroit diplomacy with Russia. Then there is the feeble state of the U.S. economy.

What I fail to see is why all Israelis wouldn't favor peaceful resolutions of both the Syrian and Iranian problems. Their primary preoccupation should be successful talks with the Palestinians, which got restarted after Secretary of State John F. Kerry made the relaunching of them his top priority in January.

Israel is in a new, more difficult situation. For decades it was surrounded by countries in reasonable states of stability and order. Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and even the Palestinian territories were relatively tranquil compared to their condition post-Arab Spring. Now, all of them, particularly Egypt and Syria, are in violent turmoil. So shouldn't Israel want more -- rather than less -- peace among its neighbors, including in Syria and Iran? And wouldn't a negotiated resolution of the Iran nuclear issue lead to that end? So what's the problem for Israel with Mr. Obama talking to Mr. Rouhani?

A third argument for Mr. Obama not to meet with Mr. Rouhani is that the Iranian president does not have the authority to speak for the people who allegedly really run his country, starting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Of course, the sometime opacity of what goes on in Tehran presents a picture almost as murky as the bizarre picture that Washington presents with a divided Congress, divided Republican and Democratic parties and a sometimes sphinx-like, apparently befuddled Mr. Obama in the White House.

However, do the sums. Mr. Rouhani was one of six candidates running for the Iranian presidency in the end, after the supreme leader and the other ayatollahs had thrown out other candidates as unsuitable. So far, Mr. Khamenei has not disassociated himself from anything Mr. Rouhani has said or done.

It is clear that Iran's economy is on the ropes, although the country's tolerance of economic misery is considerably higher than America's. Part of Iran's difficulties are due to U.S. economic sanctions, particularly in the banking sector, and to measures the United States has bullied other countries, including those in the European Union, to take against Iran.

Iranian leaders have showed imagination in finding ways around U.S. sanctions as they work through clever U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, including the United Arab Emirates. Still, these work-arounds are expensive and inconvenient and Iran would like to operate in the open again, avoiding commissions and maneuvers.

The supreme leader is not stupid and, in spite of his and his allies' historical distrust of the United States, harking back to 1953 when U.S. and British operatives replaced Iran's elected prime minister with Shah Reza Pahlavi, he, too, can see the advantages of getting rid of sanctions, even if it means bridling Iran's nuclear program. Ayatollah Khamenei certainly doesn't run a democracy in Iran, but he can't have missed the fact that in June the Iranian electorate readily chose the most liberal of the six presidential candidates -- the one most likely to negotiate a better economic situation for Iran.

There are no good reasons for Mr. Obama not to meet with Mr. Rouhani. It would be a door-opener, no more. Mr. Obama would lose nothing, or what he would lose would cost less than what the United States would gain.

There is also much virtue in ending more than three decades of non-communication with an important country in an important region. And it is inescapable, although a lesser matter in the long haul, that negotiating peace in Syria would have to involve Iran since it is one of the Syrian regime's most important allies.

The president should go ahead and talk.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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