Despite Israeli suspicions, Iran’s peace initiative bodes well


Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, has declared that his country will not pursue nuclear weapons. In so doing, he has forced the United States to revisit its long-standing policy toward Iran.

While the United States and most of the rest of the world welcomed Mr. Rouhani’s statement, Israel responded negatively to his overtures. With this new opening on the diplomatic front, the drumbeat of war against Iran is muffled but not entirely silenced.

So far we have only statements of intent from Iran. Many complicated steps must be taken before the United Nations and the United States would lift crippling economic sanctions against Iran.

The U.S. sanctions were imposed after the Iranian revolution in 1979. They were strengthened in 1995 because of a U.S. disagreement with Iran on the nuclear issue. In 2006, the U.N. Security Council added its weight to the sanctions.

The results have been devastating. Inflation in Iran is running close to 30 percent. The value of the Iranian riyal has plummeted, making it almost a worthless currency internationally.

No doubt the sanctions have played an important role in Iran’s change of direction. But it is also possible that Iran finally has realized that the pursuit of nuclear options is not in its long-term national interests.

By choosing this route, Mr. Rouhani effectively has renounced the belligerence and bellicosity of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And he has repudiated his predecessor by recognizing the Holocaust. These are refreshing moves.

President Obama has shown considerable statesmanship by responding positively to the Iranian overtures. If this process succeeds, President Obama will achieve what has eluded his predecessors since 1979. Unhappiness among some right-wing Republicans and their trigger-happy neo-conservative friends aside, America will be better served by successful diplomacy.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is skeptical of Iran’s change of heart. In a recent address to the U.N. General Assembly, he told the world body to distrust Iran’s newly shown charm and urged the continuation of sanctions. He said that Israel would act alone if necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Rouhani enjoys broad support among his people for his recent efforts. However, all would be for naught if he did not have the support of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

According to the Iranian constitution, the supreme leader has the final say in matters of public policy. Addressing the War College of Tehran recently, Mr. Khamenei congratulated President Rouhani on his successful mission to the United Nations.

So what would it take to satisfy Israel that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons? Israel contends that the sanctions should stay in place until Iran has lost all capability to make nuclear weapons.

Well-established international procedures could ensure that Iran is not pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, and that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. However, insisting on eradication of Iran’s nuclear program, even for peaceful purposes, would negate the entire process.

The fear is that Israel may not wait for the process to come to fruition and attack Iran, as Mr. Netanyahu implied in his U.N. address. If that happens, the war-weary United States would be sucked into a quagmire that is not in its best interests.

You cannot separate Iran’s peace initiative from the 65-year old Palestinian issue. If Israel would help create a Palestinian state on the occupied West Bank and in Gaza, it would take the wind out of the sails of its Middle East foes.

However, in a recent uncompromising speech at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Mr. Netanyahu said that the major obstacle to Mideast peace is not the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. He said instead that it is the reluctance of Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state and renounce their demand for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their homes in Israel. This effectively takes the illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, and the occupation, off the table.

Recent talks between Israel and Palestinians, guided by Secretary of State John Kerry, have not progressed significantly. Given the recent public stance of Mr. Netanyahu, those talks are not expected to go anywhere.

Rapprochement with Iran is a step in the right direction. But the Persian Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Israel, are not willing to give diplomacy a chance for their own narrow reasons.

A confident and prosperous Iran could play an important role in restoring peace in Syria and across the region.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

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