Of the multiple negotiations Secretary of State John Kerry has started in recent months, it's difficult to say which of them looks more impossible. Is it the Geneva peace conference on Syria, which has been pushed back because, well, neither side has any real interest in talking? Is it the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which both sides (surprise!) say are failing? Or is it the effort to try diplomacy with Iran, which resumes Thursday, also in Geneva?
The effort to negotiate away Iran's nuclear threat is hard enough, but the idea that Tehran and Washington can achieve even the most meager modus vivendi in relations looks as unlikely as it did three decades ago. As if to drive home the point—and send a message to the new, pro-negotiation president, Hassan Rouhani—regime hard-liners on Monday orchestrated one of the largest of the annual anti-American demonstrations to commemorate the U.S. Embassy hostage-taking in 1979.
And yet as distant as it all looks, the possibility of some kind of "grand bargain" exists. A deal that would not only put Iran's nuclear program on hold (that's all you're going to get) but might also prompt moderates in Tehran to temporize the regime's other destabilizing policies in the Mideast and Central Asia—its support for Hezbollah in Syria, its anti-Israel rhetoric and terrorism, and its temporary alliance with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, among other things.
The fact is, little of note is going to get done on any major issue without Iranian cooperation of some kind, and that has not proved impossible in the past. As Ryan Crocker, one of America's most distinguished diplomats, wrote in The New York Times on Monday, "Although most Americans may be unaware of it, talks with Iran have succeeded before and they can succeed again."
Especially because Rouhani and his worldly foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have themselves been part of some of those quasi-successful talks. In 2001-02, for example, Iran provided invaluable assistance in stabilizing the new Karzai government in Afghanistan (Zarif led the talks for Tehran). Iran also became the largest non-OECD donor to post-Taliban Afghanistan, pledging $550 million worth of assistance (about the same as the U.S.) at the Tokyo conference.
Only days after that conference, in another of the disastrous decisions that so marked his first term, George W. Bush declared Iran to be part of the "axis of evil," immediately overturning the progress being made by his own diplomats. According to Iranian moderates I spoke to during a 2007 visit to Iran and then later on, the Bush speech also discredited everyone in Tehran who favored rapprochement. "The hard-liners, when we talk with them, they say, 'Dear friend, you talked with the Americans in a very moderate way, and you didn't get any result at all,' " S.M.H. Adeli, Iran's urbane former ambassador to London, told me then.
Even so, in the spring of 2003, Iranian officials, using their regular Swiss intermediary, faxed a two-page proposal for comprehensive talks to the State Department, including discussions of a "two-state solution" between Israel and the Palestinians. The Bush administration dismissed it at the time as dubious. Zarif, a career diplomat educated at the University of Denver who has conducted perhaps more direct negotiations with Americans than any other Iranian official, also had a hand in that maneuver.