President Barack Obama’s phone conversation Friday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was a historic ice-breaker after decades of no high-level contact with the leadership of that critical Middle East country.
Some believed that the two presidents should have deliberately run into each other during the busy first week of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. At the same time, the inevitable grip-and-grin photo of the two wouldn’t have done either president any good at home in the overheated political atmospheres of Tehran and Washington.
No one should presume too much at this stage, but it now appears that the road is set for a constructive, negotiated approach to the primary issue dividing the United States and Iran, that country’s nuclear program. Talks between Iran and U.N. Security Council permanent members China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany, are now scheduled for Oct. 15-16 in Geneva. Those talks are not specifically about U.S.-Iranian relations, but a deal involving Western economic sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program will be at the core.
Rouhani, the whole week in New York, including during interviews with American journalists, gave signals that Iran is now ready to work toward a deal. So far he has not been disowned by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Geneva meeting will provide Iran with every opportunity to show whether Rouhani was serious about repairing relations. A failure by Iran to put concrete proposals on the table would be an equally clear signal that Rouhani’s performance in New York, including his phone conversation with Mr. Obama, was an effort to substitute theater for real willingness to negotiate.
America and the world have every reason to hope that Rouhani’s posture reflected Iranian reality, not subterfuge. The Geneva conference will tell the tale.