The Iranian people made a clear choice when they went to the polls in June. Turning out in massive numbers, defying anyone who tried to predict the outcome, they rejected the status quo. The first-round victory of relative moderate Hassan Rouhani wasn't about one man; it was a resounding call for change.
As we approach Rouhani's inauguration on Aug. 4, we in the United States have our own choice. We can heed the cynics and hawks that dismiss this new opportunity for diplomacy. The ones who hope you forget that by leading us into war with Iraq, they orchestrated one of our biggest foreign policy debacles. Or we can seize this moment and pursue the policy most likely to avoid both war and nuclear proliferation.
The real potential for progress with Iran has riled up the opponents of effective diplomatic engagement. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., promised a cheering audience that he would introduce a resolution authorizing force against Iran in September or October absent changes in Iran's nuclear program. Taking a step toward war a mere two months into Rouhani's term betrays a complete lack of interest in a diplomatic solution. Graham pretends this irresponsible grandstanding would help avert a war: "The best way to avoid war is to let the Iranians know they're going to face one and lose."
It's an audacious claim to make while we are still trying to extricate ourselves from 12 years of war that cost more than a trillion dollars and thousands of lives. Iran is more than three times the size as Iraq and is home to twice as many people. We shouldn't buy euphemisms about "surgical strikes." U.S.-run war simulations have shown that a strike on Iran is likely to lead to a wider regional war.
It's not just war that could jeopardize this fragile opening. Congress has piled sanctions on Iran and has more on the way. Iran is so economically isolated that we have reached the point of diminishing returns on sanctions. If Rouhani is going to make the case to skeptics in his country that there is potential for fair, productive negotiations, he needs evidence of openness from the United States. Military threats and counterproductive sanctions will simply empower the hardliners.
Rouhani's assuming the presidency gives us one of our best chances in years to follow the smarter path. Replacing the flamboyant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the more moderate Rouhani doesn't remove the challenging work of trust building and negotiating a deal acceptable to both sides. But there is evidence that Rouhani, who called U.S.-Iran relations "an old wound that needs to be healed," can be a partner in tough-minded, pragmatic engagement. It was during his time as nuclear negotiator in the early 2000s that Iran voluntarily froze uranium enrichment.
There is a growing consensus that this is the best path forward. Twenty-nine former government officials, experts and military officials recently wrote to President Barack Obama urging him to avoid any provocative actions and commit to "seize this opportunity to achieve diplomatic progress towards a peaceful resolution of the standoff."
The American public also favors a diplomatic solution, and is far from eager for another war - which is what we're likely to get if overzealous hawks jeopardize this opportunity. In fact, a recent Rasmussen poll shows that a majority of Americans feel that our political leaders are far too quick to send soldiers into harm's way.
You can even sense a sea change in that hotbed of anti-Iran sentiment known as the House of Representatives. An unprecedented 131 House members signed a letter led by Reps. David Price, D-N.C., and Charlie Dent, R-Pa., urging the president to reinvigorate diplomacy with Iran. After years of war fatigue and lack of major diplomatic progress, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
The next two months will be crucial, and the path we choose to follow could have implications for decades to come. We should honor the Iranians' outpouring of enthusiasm for positive change and match it with our own. The Obama administration must be bold in its pursuit of a smart diplomatic solution, and Congress must stand behind them.
Rebecca Griffin is the political director of Peace Action West. Email her at email@example.com.
Distributed by MCT Information Services