Obama Could Send Message to Iran With...a Message to Iran

In one letter, Obama could spell out common interests, mutual concerns, and prospects for peace.

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Therefore, the crux of the challenge is how to balance Iran's exercise of its NPT rights with the need to ensure that Iran's nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes. Let me reiterate that we welcome consideration of a wide range of creative options for addressing Iranian concerns and those of the international community, including proposals for guaranteed supplies of nuclear fuel from specific countries such as Russia or from the IAEA. The United States has expressed its willingness to end its decades-long policy not to have direct talks with Iran and is prepared to discuss all the issues that separate us, including Iran's current uranium enrichment program and Iran's supplying of arms, training, and funds to groups inimical to stability in the region. In the spirit of mutual respect, we also are ready to discuss your legitimate aspirations as a regional power and to cease all talk of "regime change" in Iran as well as to provide your country with the security assurances it seeks to protect its sovereignty and independence. All of this is possible only if we can find an internationally acceptable resolution to the problems posed by Iran's engagement in sensitive, dual-use nuclear activities that, absent greater transparency and clarification, appear motivated by an interest in developing a weapons capability.

The primary obstacle to direct, bilateral dialogue—a goal that you have affirmed in interviews with Western media—is Iran's determination to continue with uranium enrichment in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. We fear that if Iran's nuclear energy program is transformed into a nuclear weapons program, it will precipitate a dangerous nuclear arms race in the region.

Let me point out that the development of a nuclear weapon is not necessary for the world to acknowledge the ability and sophistication of Iranian scientists; their knowledge has already brought Iran into the select group of some 40 states with nuclear capacity. Even if Iran has the human and material resources to develop a nuclear weapon, it must have the forbearance and wisdom to refrain from doing so. In exchange for Iran's verifiable compliance with international norms and legal obligations, it will be in a position to enjoy mutually beneficial relations with the United States, as well as with the European Union and other regional and world powers, and thus may one day be eligible to join the World Trade Organization. Such compliance will also provide Iran with opportunities for developing its vast energy sector to serve Iran's strategic interests while also helping meet global energy needs.

It is important to underscore that the United States is not against Iran or the Iranian people. If that were the case, America would not have helped defeat two of your country's major, long-term adversaries, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Their demise has helped Iran reassert its regional power and influence; yet America did not exact any concessions from Iran as the price for its actions. Regrettably, both the United States and Iran, suspicious of one another's aims, have missed several opportunities in recent years to normalize diplomatic relations. Following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, we were greatly impressed that you, Ayatollah Khamenei, and then-President Muhammad Khatami, were among the first world figures to condemn the dastardly assault on America and the killing of innocent civilians. As President Khatami said, "the horrific attacks ... were perpetrated by [a] cult of fanatics who had self-mutilated their ears and tongues, and could only communicate with perceived opponents through carnage and destruction." Indeed, President Khatami described 9/11 as "one of the greatest calamities" of our time. Americans were also deeply moved by the spontaneous candlelight vigil held in Tehran to honor the victims of these attacks. Iran's assistance was welcomed during the struggle to dislodge the Taliban in Afghanistan, as was the development assistance Iran provided to the Afghan government and people. Although this empathetic and collaborative spirit was not capitalized upon to establish a more lasting, positive relationship, such missteps do not have to determine our future path.

Vartan Gregorian is president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grant-making institution founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1911.