OWL’S HEAD, Maine — President Barack Obama's UN speech is potentially the most important foreign policy speech of his White House years.
To be sure, it was rhetorically impressive, delivered with familiar dramatic pauses, theatrical pursing of lips and tilting of head. But it also was bold and substantive.
Obama's bumbling on Syria led many to believe that his approach to Rouhani at the UN would be tentative and cautious. Instead, it was straightforward, even risky. And it might just lead to serious negotiations with Iran.
Right-wing commentators were already condemning any opening Obama might make to Iran's newly elected and clearly moderate president, Hassan Rouhani. The Washington Post's conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin searched near and far to report that "both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are doing everything they can to keep the president from giving away the store."
Since the Shah was overthrown in 1979, there have been occasional back-channel contacts but no serious attempts at direct, in-the-open negotiations. President Obama has now responded to Rouhani's series of populist tweets and interviews with as important a foreign policy initiative as anything since Richard Nixon's opening to China 40 years ago.
Following on the Obama speech is an initial discussion in which Secretary of State Kerry joins his P5+1 counterparts in meeting the Iranian foreign minister. It is the highest-level meeting of US and Iranian diplomats since the late 1970s.
In his speech, Obama referred to the "difficult history" between the two countries, even bringing up the US role in overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, more than half a century ago to put the autocratic Shah back on the throne.
Realistically, Obama said, such a past cannot "be overcome overnight." But he specifically noted that the US does not seek regime change in Iran. What it does want, he said, is a diplomatic solution to "resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program," adding that he was "encouraged" by Rouhani's more moderate course.
Obama clearly is not certain that Iran's new president can overcome his country's hardliners to forge a final deal with the US. But he was not reluctant to describe a possible future relationship as "one based on mutual interests and mutual respect."
Such a rapprochement with Iran would revitalize Obama's second term. It would shake up, in a dramatic and positive way, a region in which the Syrian civil war, like a great whirlpool, is sucking its neighbors toward disaster.
Meanwhile, the Saudis and the Israelis are united in their opposition to any US-Iran deal.
The Israelis are on full-court offense in response to Rouhani's overtures. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced Rouhani as “a wolf in sheep's clothing” and his office compared Iran to North Korea in its “ploy to get nuclear weapons."
The Saudis, reluctant as always to express their views too publicly, have nonetheless let their US and European allies know of their strong belief that Iran must continue to be kept bottled up. The Saudis have viewed Iran as a regional rival since the days of the Shah, and they now worry about the influence of Shia Iran on their own Shiite citizens in the oil-rich Eastern Province. While they have a strategic interest in the US and Iran's remaining enemies, the Saudi’s have little choice but to accept Obama's approach toward Iran.
After years of seeing Iran as an untrustworthy foe, the American people are wary of Iranian promises. However, given a choice between a negotiation — even one that is long and drawn-out — or war, they definitely prefer the non-military approach.
So Obama, a child of the '60s who grew up with the Beatles, is taking to heart one of their memorable refrains:
"All we are saying is give peace a chance."
And if Rouhani is even half the moderate he appears to be, it just might work. It’s certainly worth the effort to find out.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives in Owl's Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.