Now, the Hard Part


President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran showed leadership this week in committing themselves to resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. On Friday, they capped days of promising gestures with a phone call — the first direct contact between top American and Iranian leaders in more than three decades.

In a series of speeches, media interviews, private meetings and even a news conference, Mr. Rouhani, a moderate who took office in August, and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, laid the groundwork for mending ties with American policy makers, policy analysts and businesspeople. But the phone call was the most audacious sign of a new day, and Mr. Rouhani immediately told the world about it on Twitter.

It’s hard not to be swept up in the euphoria, especially when an adversary begins to seem not only reasonable but personable. Both leaders have now taken risks that would have been impossible even a few months ago, before Mr. Rouhani was elected to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-liner who spewed anti-American and anti-Israel diatribes. But so far, it’s only words; the Iranians haven’t actually done anything to satisfy concerns about their nuclear program. In fact, Mr. Rouhani has repeatedly affirmed Iran’s plans to continue enriching uranium.

Moreover, it is hard not to worry about how crushing, and possibly dangerous, the disappointment will be if the two countries fail to settle differences over Iran’s nuclear program and begin to build a new relationship beyond that. The two sides came to this point after years of international sanctions — approved by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council — that have damaged Iran’s economy and after Mr. Obama warned of possible military action to keep Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.

At the White House, Mr. Obama acknowledged the difficulties but spoke of a responsibility to pursue diplomacy and said he believed “we have a unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran.” That, he said, will require “meaningful, transparent and verifiable” actions on Iran’s part to persuade the international community that it is not building nuclear weapons.

Work on the nuclear issue began when the United States and its five partners in the negotiations — Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany — met with Mr. Zarif on Thursday for the first time, and then Mr. Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry had a 30-minute one-on-one conversation. The two left the meeting talking about trying to conclude a nuclear agreement in one year.

No country feels more threatened by Iran than Israel, and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is clearly unhappy with the American-Iranian thaw. In addition to having a nuclear program, Iran is the main backer of Hezbollah and has provided arms and fighters to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

But a peaceful solution to the nuclear dispute would undoubtedly be the best outcome and would help enhance stability in the region. After years of Iranian dodging and delays, the two sides have set an ambitious timetable for reaching an agreement. The work begins in earnest when Iran and the major powers resume their negotiations in three weeks.

Courtesy: The New York Times