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Obama in Tehran — could it happen?

By Julian Pecquet

December 6, 2013

A visit to Tehran by President Obama is no longer impossible, according to experts and former officials.

While an Obama trip there in the next three years remains a long shot, neither the White House nor Iran’s new president will categorically rule it out.

Other observers say what once seemed unimaginable is now possible.

"Stranger things have happened," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs panel. "We’ve shown an ability to re-pivot in our relationships with bitter, violent adversaries."

Graffiti vowing "Death to America" still covers Tehran, and the 34th anniversary of the 1979 takeover of the embassy last month drew the biggest anti-American rally in years.

Yet the relationship between Iran and the U.S. has shifted in the last year, as Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani became the first leaders of their countries to speak to one another since before the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis of 1979.

An interim nuclear deal brokered last month added momentum, though there are significant doubts in Congress about whether the deal suits U.S. interests and imposed real concessions on Iran.

"We’re at a place in our dealings with the Iranians that six months ago would have been unimaginable," said John Limbert, a retired U.S. diplomat who was one of the 52 hostages held for 444 days by Iranian students who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979.

Suddenly there is talk about Iran being a strategic partner for the U.S. in the Middle East, and of U.S. oil companies and Iran partnering in business.

Rouhani and the White House both have been asked about the possibility of a visit, and have dodged the question.

White House press secretary Jay Carney responded to a question Tuesday by stating that previous reports by a Kuwaiti news site on preparations for a visit were false.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Rouhani responded to a direct question about a visit by discussing his phone call with Obama.

"As I said earlier, Iran-U.S. problems are very complicated and cannot be resolved over a short period of time," he said. "Despite the complications, there has been an opening over the past 100 days, which can later widen."

Lawmakers in both parties have raised worries about the nuclear deal, and are concerned Obama’s long-stated desire for a "new beginning" with Iran blinds him to what they see as that country’s determination to get a nuclear weapon despite its leaders’ assurances to the contrary.

Obama’s overtures date back to the 2008 presidential campaign, when he offered to meet without preconditions with leaders of countries hostile to the United States, including Iran. His primary challenger, Hillary Clinton, at the time called the offer "naive" and "irresponsible."

"We are nowhere near a presidential visit — not even close," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a champion of sanctions on Iran. "Before I would worry about legacy, I would worry about the details. And I’m concerned that they may have the cart before the horse."

Yet the change in tone has buoyed long-time advocates of better relations with Iran.

Bruce Laingen, the top U.S. diplomat in Iran during the hostage crisis, said Obama would likely welcome such a chance to normalize relations with Iran and cement his legacy as a Middle East peacemaker — if the stars align.

"I wouldn’t predict that he will be able to achieve that, but I think Obama would welcome it," Laingen said. "He’s at the beginning of an incumbency [during which] he would like to see some results beyond where we are today."

Improved ties with Iran are in America’s national security interests, says Tommy Vietor, the former spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council and now a principal with consulting firm Fenway Strategies.

Shared interests include thwarting the Taliban in Afghanistan, battling Sunni extremists such as al Qaeda and combating drug trafficking in the Middle East.

"The whole reason you do the nuclear negotiations is to try to remove that security threat and improve relations generally," he said.

"I think there is the potential for a far better, more normalized relationship long down the road," he said. But he cautioned that a presidential trip would first require Iran to improve its human rights record and cease its support for terrorism.

"If everything worked out perfectly and there was a normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iran and all the irritants ... were settled? Sure. But that’s a lot of pieces to get in place in a short period of time."

Observers say it’s largely up to Iran to convince the U.S. and its allies, including Israel, of its peaceful intentions.

"Can I see a future where Iran and the United States have reestablished and normalized their relations in some fashion? My answer is decidedly yes," Connolly said. "But it requires this dynamic to take hold."



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