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News Opinion Editorial

Iran's charm offensive

President Barack Obama's critics lost no time in calling him naive for welcoming talks offered by Iran's president aimed at reducing tensions between their two countries over Tehran's disputed nuclear program. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu was outspoken in his disdain for the diplomatic initiative launched at the United Nations last month by Iranian President Hasan Rowhani, calling him a wolf in sheep's clothing who only wants to bargain in order to buy more time for Iran to build a bomb.

Mr. Netanyahu may turn out to be right, yet we'll never know that unless Mr. Obama takes up the Iranian offer to see if it is serious. If it is, the U.S. ought to be able to determine in fairly short order whether Mr. Rowhani can deliver on his promises, not just talk the talk. Nor should it take months to figure out if this an opening worth pursuing. For now, Mr. Obama is right to keep an open mind on the subject.

It's worth recalling that for all the emphasis Mr. Obama has placed on his preference for a diplomatic resolution to the issue of Iran's nuclear program, he has long insisted that all options — including military action — were on the table and that he will never allow Iran to build atomic weapons. We think the president's critics underestimate his resolve if they think he can be sweet-talked into breaking that vow just because Iran's new president offers the same old obfuscations and lies with a smiling face.

Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are well aware that Iran has used previous rounds of negotiations to run out the clock while it built up a nuclear infrastructure that edged it closer to weapons capability. The U.S. and its allies aren't going to fall for that ploy again, and if Mr. Rowhani is counting on getting away with Iran's usual stalling tactics this time he is almost certainly is in for a rude awakening.

On the other hand, there is reason to believe conditions in Iran may have become more favorable to a diplomatic solution since the last round of talks ended in failure. The Iranian economy has been crippled by American and European Union sanctions, which will only grow more oppressive until the U.S. and its allies are satisfied the regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons.

Sanctions have cut the output of Iran's oil industry in half over the last year, and new restrictions being considered by Congress this year could virtually shut off the flow altogether and severely limit the funds Iran needs to finance its nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, the deteriorating economic conditions in Iran have produced shortages of food and other essentials that have led to growing popular discontent over how the mullahs are running the country.

Iranians elected Mr. Rowhani president in June — and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, allowed it to happen — largely on the hope that his pledge to reduce the country's isolation and establish better relations with the West would translate into improvements in the lives of ordinary citizens. There's no doubt Mr. Rowhani has to walk a narrow line between hard-line conservatives in the government and military and popular demands for greater openness and a more moderate approach to the U.S. But Mr. Khamenei must realize that the clerics' hold on power will only become more tenuous if the country's economic crisis deepens.

That is why Mr. Rowhani's offer of talks represents a potential break from the past that Mr. Obama can't afford to dismiss out of hand. If Mr. Rowhani and Mr. Khamenei truly are serious, they have to know they must show progress quickly toward reaching an agreement or the opportunity may be lost. Whatever they offer won't mean much if the country keeps on enriching uranium. Failing to test whether Mr. Rowhani's gestures are genuine would indeed be, as Mr. Kerry put it, "diplomatic malpractice."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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