The last time the leaders of Iran and the U.S. met was 36 years ago—during the reign of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. He’d been installed in a U.S.-backed coup against a democratically elected leader, only to be overthrown in 1979 by Islamic revolutionaries who held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
There’s a lot of history here—the kind that makes opening a new chapter of less hostile relations difficult, despite recent overtures from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Over the years, what each country wants from the other hasn’t much changed. The Iranians want to be treated with respect, and the Americans want Iran to behave respectably, especially when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program.
The Iranians say this program exists only to produce electricity and pursue medical research. They say they’ve no intention of building nuclear weapons and have a right to nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment. As a relatively prosperous and scientifically advanced country, they say, Iran shouldn’t be forced to rely on others for part of the nuclear fuel cycle: It’s a matter of national pride.
Fine, so long as Iran meets its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and submits its nuclear installations to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. If the Iranians want to be believed when they say their program is innocuous, they would do well to stop insisting that Iran has never sought nuclear weapons. The U.S. and its allies collected strong intelligence showing Iran had such a program until it halted the work in 2003. Iran needs to acknowledge the past program and allow the IAEA to investigate sites suspected of housing it.
Congress, meanwhile, will have to stop tightening the squeeze on Iran and allow the diplomats to test whether the punishments already in place have created an opening for meaningful talks. A settlement could offer the lifting of sanctions in stages. That would be a good result—but to get there, each side must first convince the other that it’s serious.