Diplomacy can move quickly when sides decide the time is right. In mere days last week while at the UN General Assembly, Iranian President Hassan Rowhani made a series of encouraging gestures towards the US about negotiations on his country's nuclear programme. Before boarding his flight home on Friday, he had been phoned by his American counterpart Barack Obama, the highest-level contact between the countries in 34 years. These are groundbreaking developments for an acrimonious relationship but will remain mere words unless they have full government backing.
The problem is that neither Rowhani nor Obama is in charge of the process. While Rowhani is more moderate than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he does not dictate policy; that power lies with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose dislike of the US goes back to the overthrow of the country's first democratically elected leader in a US- and British-backed coup in 1953. Sanctions against Iran that are the crux of any deal can be lifted only with the approval of the UN Security Council, European Union and the US Congress. The two leaders and their officials can reach out as much as they like, but much has to be done before ties can truly warm.
Opening up its nuclear facilities for UN inspections is the best place for Iran to start. Concern that the country may be using them to develop nuclear weapons has prompted threats of pre-emptive strikes by the US and its Middle East ally, Israel. North Korea's breaking of a 2005 deal that led to its secret production of bombs has created a cautious atmosphere.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country Iran refuses to recognise, made his concerns plain when meeting Obama in Washington yesterday. Echoing governments in the Middle East dominated by Sunni Muslims which also oppose Shiite-majority Iran, he contended that the conciliatory moves are little more than an effort to buy time for the processing of nuclear material. Until proven otherwise, sanctions should be kept in place or strengthened, he argues.
Rowhani believes a deal can be made in months. But scepticism is so rife in some circles that only concerted action seems likely to lead to a shift. An opportunity for Tehran to prove its resolve arises later this month when it meets world powers and International Atomic Energy Agency officials in Vienna. But Mideast stability does not depend only on Tehran. The West has as vital a role in negotiating a peaceful solution.