In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Obama promised to engage Iran’s new leaders in negotiations to prevent the development of nuclear weapons in that country as part of a broader normalization of relations. The President was right to say that “the diplomatic path must be tested,” despite concerns in this country and Israel that Iran will never abandon its ambitions to be a nuclear power.
An Iran that possessed nuclear weapons would be a deeply destabilizing development. The most commonly cited concern is that Iran might launch a nuclear attack on Israel — an operation that would be suicidal in light of Israel’s own, if unacknowledged, nuclear arsenal.
But a more likely danger is that a nuclear-armed Iran would seek to maximize its political influence in the region. That could inspire other states to seek nuclear weapons of their own.
Although Iran insists that its nuclear program is designed only for civilian uses, the International Atomic Energy Agency has been consistently skeptical. The U.N. Security Council has approved multiple resolutions calling on Iran to stop enriching uranium. Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany have failed to produce a breakthrough.
Yet economic sanctions have taken their toll. Last June, Iranians elected as their president Hassan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator who ran as a reformer. Mr. Rouhani has suggested he would be open to creative negotiations to resolve the nuclear issue. For now, at least, he seems to have the support of Iran’s religious establishment.
Skeptics in the United States and Israel warn that this is trickery, designed to soften sanctions while the nuclear program quietly progresses. But President Obama is wise to engage the new Iranian leader, especially given the alternative.
A U.S. military strike against Iran — an option Mr. Obama has said is “on the table” as a last resort — could have catastrophic human and political consequences, with no guarantee that it would achieve its objective. Americans are uneasy about military intervention in the Middle East or elsewhere, as Mr. Obama found when he proposed a limited attack on Syria. A diplomatic resolution is obviously a far better solution.
Mr. Obama noted that mistrust between the United States and Iran has “deep roots.” The difficulty of forging a better relationship was symbolized by the fact that the U.S. officials were unable to arrange even a casual meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani at the United Nations. But the absence of a presidential photo opportunity will be forgotten if lower-level officials make progress on the nuclear issue.