I'm among those who would have liked to have seen the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, shake hands with our own president during their recent visits to the United Nations. But it's easy to see why the meeting didn't happen. At least Rouhani and President Barack Obama engaged in an unprecedented phone conversation. It's a start.
In fact, with regard to the newly emergent moderate Iran, as embodied in Rouhani, count me among the hopeful.
You may call this attitude naive or hopelessly gullible, but I prefer to start at least with "face value" when evaluating Rouhani and his Sept. 19 op-ed in The Washington Post. Rouhani embraces many fine, high-minded sentiments, and he professes Iran's desire for "constructive engagement" with the rest of the world.
Of course, in the context of the last 30 years -- Iran's repressive theocracy, its support for terrorism, its anti-Semitism and homophobia -- it's tempting to cast anything that emerges from Iran, including Rouhani, in the most cynical of lights, which is what a number of commentators have done.
A good example is Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who has called Rouhani a "mirage," a mere "agent" of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He faults Rouhani for "unswervingly loyal service to the Islamic Republic," as if anyone who hadn't been loyal to his country could possibly become president.
Krauthammer's skeptical estimation of Rouhani and his "lovey-dovey" op-ed is understandable, but in some respects it's as simple-mindedly one-dimensional as the perspective of the most credulous optimist.
Of course, Iran has self-serving reasons to make nice with the West. International sanctions are crippling its economy and Iranians are suffering. On the other hand, we have a considerable stake in encouraging moderation in Iran: We will either have to find a way to help midwife Iran into normal relations with the rest of the world, including us, or we will eventually fight, either in proxy wars or directly.
The latter prospect is horrible, which makes the former worth putting aside our skepticism long enough to explore a nuanced view of what's happening with Iran right now.
The sticking point is nuclear weapons. Understandably, we're unwilling to tolerate them in the hands of a country whose last president spoke openly about the annihilation of Israel. In fact, if we go to war with Iran, nuclear weapons are likely to be the cause.
But it's not hard to see why many Iranians, even moderates, believe their country should have the same rights that all the other "important" countries in the world have.
Rouhani's assertion of Iran's right to the development of a "peaceful nuclear energy program" -- not weapons -- provides some insight. Iran's desire for nuclear energy is only partly about resource diversification, a worthy goal for any country. Rouhani says it's also "about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world."
As much as countries are motivated by their self-interests, they often also care about what other countries think about them. The practical fact that Iran wants the sanctions lifted doesn't cancel out the side of Iran that Americans often overlook: Despite rule by radicals since 1979, Iran is a nation of young people, many of whom don't even remember the revolution. Iran has a democratic tradition that dates back at least a hundred years. Its complex citizenry often manifests attractions toward modernization, secularization and moderation, as indicated by Rouhani's election.
Relationships between countries sometimes resemble relationships between people. A little respect can take you a long way. Caution is called for, but we're so strong that we can afford to put aside the skepticism and bluster, if that's what it takes. It would be unfortunate for everyone if we blew this opportunity because of knee-jerk cynicism. We're unlikely to have another chance like this one anytime soon.
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)