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.
The usual response of skeptics is that the Iranian leadership is just bargaining for time, especially in building a bomb. Opposition to a relationship with the "Great Satan" and any recognition of its minion, Israel, runs deep in the marrow of the Islamic Republic. The basic ideology of the Iranian revolution, after all, was fostered by opposition to the U.S.-backed Shah and the CIA-orchestrated ouster of President Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Without America as an enemy, the mullahs don't have as much reason to justify their rule.
But while it's not about to fade away, all evidence the Iranian revolution is in a state of turmoil, thanks in large part to harsh international sanctions that have finally, after many years, begun to set in motion a deeper macroeconomic malfunction, including a worrying amount of inflation. Hardliners and moderates are openly fighting. Conventional wisdom is that the chief hard-liner on nuclear and other issues is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but he's given Rouhani far more flexibility than in the mid-2000s, when as Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator he was slapped down. More to the point, Khamenei is now 74, and it's very unclear whether there will be a supreme leader to follow him.