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For U.S.-Iran, it's all in the timing

By Trita Parsi

Four years after President Barack Obama famously extended his hand of friendship to Iran, Tehran finally seems willing to unclench its fist. The most decisive geopolitical handshake of this decade may take place today at the United Nations.

Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani and Obama may have this encounter at the luncheon of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday or in the U.N building's corridors.

This new opening has taken the world by surprise. Washington's dual track policy over the past three years — a combination of a little bit of diplomacy and a whole lot of strangulating sanctions — has produced a hardening of the Iranian position. Tehran's nuclear activities have continued unabated, while its regional policies, particularly its support for the Assad regime in Syria, have intensified.

Both sides seemed to be preparing for a long fight, where perseverance would determine the outcome.

Almost no one in the U.S. government expected the Iranian elections to change this — and certainly not by voting in Iranian pragmatists, who had been pushed to the margins of Iranian politics over the past eight years.

But the Iranian electorate have a track record of stunning the world — and they did it again this summer. Against all odds, they turned out in large numbers and dared the Iranian conservatives to cheat again — as they did in 2009.

Washington, however, espouses a different narrative. The change in the Iranian position is not so much due to the change of guards, but the inevitable pain of sanctions finally changing Tehran's nuclear calculus. Some even claim the election results were produced by the sanctions.

On one level, this narrative looks convincing. The pain of sanctions is indisputable, creating an impression that it inspired Tehran's change in tone.

But there is a more complex reality — one less soothing to Western political narratives.

The Iranian signals are not that surprising. Rouhani and the new esteemed foreign minister, Javad Zarif, played crucial roles in past Iranian efforts to engineer an opening to Washington — almost a decade before the strangulating sanctions.

Zarif led the collaboration with the United States in Afghanistan in 2001, where the two countries closely cooperated to oust the Taliban and establish a new constitutional government in that country. The Iranians were hoping Washington would appreciate their strategic help and improve relations. Instead, President George W. Bush listed Iran in the "Axis of Evil." The Iranian plan for rapprochement fell apart.

Two years later, this same team of Iranian officials offered the Bush administration a "grand bargain" proposal, addressing all major areas of conflict between the two countries. Among other things, the Iranians offered to open up their nuclear program for transparency, collaborate with the U.S. in Iraq, restrain Hamas and Islamic jihad and even indirectly recognize Israel.

The Bush White House rejected the offer out of hand.

Before the Ahmadinejad government took over, Zarif and Rouhani — who was then national security adviser and nuclear negotiator — reached out to the European Union. They offered to cap Iran's nuclear program at 3,000 centrifuges. The EU, however, did not take the offer.

These efforts preceded the sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy. And they were made with the approval of Iran's Supreme Leader, though he maintains he believed they would fail.

These initiatives were motivated by the worldview and larger strategic thinking of Rouhani, Zarif and their allies, who as a result of the elections, have now been given another chance to pursue these concepts. (In fact, what they offered in 2003 is likely less than what they will offer today, after three years of crippling sanctions.)

Neither did the sanctions produce the election of Rouhani. Rather, he won through a combination of election strategizing, the maturity of the Iranian electorate — and luck.

A Tehran University poll conducted immediately after the recent elections revealed that only 2 percent of Rouhani's supporters listed the lifting of sanctions as a reason for supporting him. More important, the poll revealed that strategic voting was an important cause of Rouhani's surge in the polls just before the elections. Since most voters had expected the elections to go to a runoff, voting for your favorite candidate in the first round would be a waste if you expected your first choice to be a shoe in for the runoff.

So some strategic voters voted for their second choice — to produce a runoff between two of their most preferred candidates, the poll revealed.

The poll showed that 24 percent of Rouhani voters said they preferred Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, but were certain he would make it to the runoff anyway and instead voted for Rouhani to ensure a runoff between these two candidates.

Partly thanks to this miscalculation, Rouhani managed to reach just slightly above the 50 percent line and evade the runoff.

As a result, Iran now has a new president who is eager to again pursue an opening to the West, in spite of the rejection of his earlier overtures. Had he lost, there would likely have been no diplomatic opening — in spite of the pain of the sanctions.

The danger of Washington's sanctions-centric narrative is that it could prompt the United States to miss or undermine this surprising opportunity. If sanctions are believed to be the cause of Iran's flexibility, the time-limitation of the opportunity will not be appreciated. Rather, Washington will be lulled to believe that the opportunity will remain as long as sanctions hurt the Iranian economy.

Moreover, if Rouhani's flexibility is credited to sanctions, Congress reasons, then surely more sanctions would produce more flexibility. But more sanctions — a rejection of Rouhani's latest overtures — is exactly how past Iranian openings were squandered.

The difference is, this may be Rouhani's last opening.

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