No one in Washington or Tehran underestimates the difficulty of trying to bridge the U.S.-Iran divide.
But in their separate speeches to the United Nations on September 24, both U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rohani opted for a new tone of hope and expressed the readiness to try.
At times, the two leaders used language so alike that the words of one could almost be confused with those of the other, such as when they both spoke about the importance of Iran's recent presidential election.
"We are encouraged that President Rohani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course," Obama said. His words were echoed by his Iranian counterpart, who said that "the recent elections in Iran represent a clear, living example of the wise choice of hope, rationality, and moderation by the great people of Iran.”
In both cases, the takeaway was that the Iranian elections have opened the way for a new diplomatic effort to solve the biggest problem in U.S.-Iran relations: the belief by Washington and its allies that Tehran is hiding a weapons development program in its nuclear industry.
Obama let it be known that he has ordered his top diplomat, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, to lead the drive. "Given President Rohani's stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government in close cooperation with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China," the U.S. president said.
Rohani struck a similar note by saying Tehran "is prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks."
Again, both men seemed to be on the same page as they signaled their desire to kick-start the currently stalled nuclear talks between the six world powers and Tehran. The two sides last met in Almaty in April, but ended so far apart that they failed even to set a date to meet again.
But some of the mistrust between Washington and Tehran surfaced when Obama and Rohani each addressed the nature of Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
So, while Obama indicated that he is for diplomacy, he also made it clear that the United States has a red line. "America prefers to resolve out concerns over Iran's nuclear program peacefully, although we are determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon," he said.
Rohani sought to parry Western suspicions by vowing Iran does not seek anything but the capability to produce nuclear energy. "Iran’s nuclear program, and for that matter all other countries', should be pursued exclusively for peaceful purposes," he said. "Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iranian defense doctrine and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions."
But Rohani also restated Iran’s position that it has the right to engage in all aspects of a nuclear program, including uranium enrichment. And that only heightens Western worries that Iran’s progress in enriching uranium could ultimately give Tehran the ability to produce fissile material for atomic warheads.
Both Obama and Rohani took the occasion to step back a moment from the nuclear dispute to address the larger question of U.S.-Iran relations. Not surprisingly, each had complaints to air.
"The United States and Iran have been isolated from one another since the Islamic Revolution of 1979," Obama said. "This mistrust has deep roots. Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs, and America's role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War. On the other hand, Americans see an Iranian government that has declared the United States an enemy, and directly -- or through proxies -- taken Americans hostage, killed U.S. troops and civilians, and threatened our ally Israel with destruction."
Rohani, too, directly addressed the two countries' differences, implying that Washington has in the past demonized the Islamic republic for its own purposes.
"This propagandistic discourse has assumed dangerous proportions through the portrayal and inculcation of presumed imaginary threats," he said. "One such imaginary threat is the so-called 'Iranian threat,' which has been employed as an excuse to justify a long catalogue of crimes and catastrophic practices over the past three decades. The arming of the Saddam Hussein regime with chemical weapons and supporting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are just two examples of such catastrophes."
But, as each leader looked beyond this history of quarrels to the future, they again managed to strike a common note. Each looked forward to a relationship that one day could be founded on common concerns and respect for each other.
"I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship," said Obama. "One based on mutual interests and mutual respect."
Once again, his comment was echoed by the Iranian leader.
"Iran seeks constructive engagement with other countries based on mutual respect and common interest, and within the same framework does not seek to increase tensions with the United States," Rohani said.
Just how Washington and Tehran will define mutual interests and respect in the months ahead remains to be seen. But now that Obama and Rohani have publicly committed to a new focus on diplomacy, at least there is little doubt that both want to get the process off to a good start.