What was notable about the exchange of indirect pleasantries between the newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the US state department was the lack of any reference to Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme. This is the core source of dispute between the two countries. It can safely be assumed that their respective remarks about a willingness to dialogue with the other were impregnated with unspoken references to the nuclear issue. Engagement is about all that can be expected. Washington will not roll back its economic sanctions against Iran — a new set of sanctions has just been authorised by the Congress. Iran will not waver in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon — a new nuclear facility seems to have been discovered last month.
Direct talks between the US and Iran would, nonetheless, be welcome. Mr Rouhani has deliberately put technocrats and pragmatists in charge of the foreign policy and economic portfolios of his cabinet. But expectations should be managed carefully. The gulf, if one can use the word in this situation, between the positions of the two countries is miles wide. The US has repeatedly said Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is equally insistent that its “nuclear rights” are non-negotiable. Analysts talk hopefully about the two reaching an agreement on Iran stopping short of a nuclear weapon but being allowed to hold on to the rest of the fuel cycle.
The nuclear debate, however, is just an extension of a more fundamental geopolitical question of coping with Iran’s great power ambitions. Iran sees itself as the natural hegemon of the Persian Gulf and potentially leader of the Islamic world. Nuclearisation would finalise the first role and move it closer to the second. The US, looking at Iran’s willingness to use terror as an instrument of state policy and its rogue state tendencies, feels Tehran falls short of such a status. If Iran goes nuclear, the likelihood of its regional rivals like Egypt and Turkey following suit is deemed high. And that doesn’t even count in the likelihood that Israel will try to militarily pre-empt Iran’s nuclearisation and precipitate another Persian Gulf war. In these circumstances, engagement will be more an exercise in political exploration than a search for a diplomatic solution. Given the stakes, that is still something worthy of doing.