A flurry of goodwill gestures has raised the possibility that President Barack Obama and Iran's new president will meet for the first time next week in an important symbolic step toward easing their tensions between their countries. But real progress is going to harder.
Obama and Hasan Rouhani will be in New York next week for the U.N. General Assembly and may meet face to face. But without nuclear concessions, the U.S. is unlikely to give Tehran what it wants: an easing of punishing sanctions that have resulted in soaring inflation and unemployment.
As part of the effort to cast a promising outlook on Iranian diplomacy, Rouhani touted his commitment to "constructive engagement" in a column published Friday in The Washington Post. He wrote that nations spend a lot of time, perhaps too much, discussing what they don't want rather than what they do want.
"This approach can be useful for efforts to prevent cold conflicts from turning hot. But to move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country's nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher," Rouhani said.
"Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better."
The nuclear issue may be the most difficult challenge. The U.S. and other world powers are seeking reductions in Iran's uranium enrichment, real-time monitoring of its nuclear facilities and scaled-back production at its underground Fordo facility.
Not likely, Iran experts say. At least not yet.
"I'm a bit skeptical that we'll see those kinds of concessions this early in the game," said Gary Samore, who until earlier this year was Obama's top arms control adviser.
The Obama administration has welcomed the election of Rouhani, a moderate cleric who achieved a stunning victory in Iran's June presidential elections. But U.S. officials are still skeptical of whether Rouhani's more palatable rhetoric will be followed by actual shifts in Iran's longstanding refusal to curb its nuclear program. The U.S. and its allies suspect Iran is trying to produce a nuclear weapon, though Tehran insists its nuclear activities are only for producing energy and for medical research.
Obama has been testing the waters through an exchange of letters with his Iranian counterpart. U.S. officials say Obama used his correspondence to convey urgency in resolving the nuclear dispute through diplomacy before that option is cut off.
Rouhani, in an interview with NBC News, said he thanked Obama for his outreach and "expressed Iran's viewpoint on the issues raised in his letter and some other issues."
Rouhani has made other overtures that have grabbed the Obama administration's attention. He included Iran's only Jewish lawmaker in his delegation to the U.N. meeting. And the Iranian government this week released a dozen prominent political prisoners, including a human rights lawyer who defended opposition activists and was imprisoned for three years.
White House officials said Friday that no meetings between Obama and Rouhani are scheduled, but they left open the prospect of a direct exchange.
A face-to-face meeting between Obama and Rouhani would mark a significant step in the U.S.-Iranian relationship. But the real work on the nuclear issue would come either from direct negotiations between U.S. and Iranian officials or renewed talks between Iran and six world powers— the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Those negotiations have stalled largely because of disagreements over Iran's right to enrich uranium, even at low levels that would cut off their capability to build a nuclear bomb. Iran wants the international community to acknowledge its right to enrich under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the six negotiating countries have shied from doing so.
Among Iran's primary concerns in negotiations is securing the removal of crippling international economic sanctions, while accepting as few constraints as possible on its nuclear program. The Obama administration, however, sees the sanctions as a key lever of power and is reluctant to ease the penalties.
The diverging views on sanctions and enrichment capabilities stymied negotiations with Iran earlier this year, when the parties considered a proposal for Tehran to reduce its uranium reduction to 5 percent.
That's a level the U.S. and its partners say would let Tehran continue legitimate nuclear activities and help build global confidence that it is committed to its pledge that it will not build an atomic bomb. However, the Iranians wanted the U.S. to significantly ease economic sanctions in exchange, said Samore, who is now at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Samore said the world powers were open to only a modest easing of sanctions — and only if Iran agreed to the reduction, plus halting production and limiting its stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium. That's the highest grade of enrichment that Iran has acknowledged and one that experts say could be turned into a nuclear warhead grade in a matter of months.
U.S. officials have also said that enrichment would need to be suspended at Iran's underground Fordo nuclear facility southwest of Tehran, and its stockpile of high-grade uranium moved out of the country. Iran acknowledged in 2009 that it was building the bunker-like plant — but only after U.S. intelligence revealed it to the International Atomic Energy Agency.