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U.S. Lawmakers' Call For Iran Engagement 'Not Dramatic Shift'

The letter warns against taking "provocative actions" that could weaken Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani, who has promised moderation at home and abroad.
WASHINGTON -- More than 120 members of the U.S. Congress have signed a letter calling on President Barack Obama to reengage Iran diplomatically over its nuclear program following the election of the Islamic republic's next president.

The letter's authors -- a bipartisan pair of lawmakers, Charles Dent (Republican-Pennsylvania) and David Price (Democrat-North Carolina) -- plan to send it to the White House on July 19.

The letter has the signatures of about a quarter of the members of the House of Representatives and is being described as an important move for diplomacy with Iran.

Yet analysts say it doesn't represent a dramatic shift of opinion within Congress, which has been pushing for tough measures against Iran.

The letter notes that while previous Iranian presidents elected on platforms of moderation have failed to deliver, "it would be a mistake not to test whether" Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani represents a genuine opportunity for progress in U.S.-Iranian relations.

The letter says: "In order to test this proposition, it will be prudent for the United States to utilize all diplomatic tools to reinvigorate ongoing nuclear talks."

The letter also warns against taking "provocative actions" that could weaken Rohani, who has promised moderation in Iran and abroad.

READ MORE: RFE/RL Talks To Letter Co-Author Representative David Price

Since his election, Rohani has expressed readiness for more transparency on the nuclear issue and engagement with the international community.

'An Opportunity, Not A Guarantee'

The U.S. lawmakers' letter also advises that "bilateral and multilateral sanctions must be calibrated in such a way that they induce significant and verifiable concessions from Iran."

A spokesman for Representative Price told RFE/RL that 124 congressmen, including 15 Republicans, had signed the letter by July 18. Several more members of Congress could sign the letter before it's sent to Obama.

Representative Keith Ellison (Democrat-Minnesota), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, is among the signatories. He told RFE/RL that Rohani's election could present the United States with an opportunity "to reset" its relationship with Tehran.

"It's not a guarantee -- a guarantee and an opportunity are not the same thing. But I think if there is even a chance that the United States and Iran could engage in a new relationship-building situation, then we should take it," Ellison said.

"Both are large powerful countries, and there has been a hostile rhetoric going back and forth. Why not, with the election of Mr. Rohani, see if we can reset the relations and at least begin a dialogue?"

Alireza Nader, a senior Iran analyst with the Rand Corporation, says the letter is a "significant development."

"Obviously being tough on the Islamic republic is politically valuable, hence a lot of the strong rhetoric on Tehran's policies, especially the nuclear program," he says. "But many U.S. policymakers, including members of Congress, believe that the best option in stopping Iran's nuclear drive is through a negotiated deal."

Nader believes Rohani's election provides "a unique opportunity" to resolve the nuclear crisis diplomatically. He says Rohani "may not be an ideal Iranian leader from an American political perspective, but he is pragmatic enough that the U.S. can at least attempt to work with him in order to prevent a costly military conflict."

Nothing New?

Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution, says the letter is an important gesture. But she says it doesn't represent "a tsunami" in favor of a dramatic new overture to Tehran.

"I think there has always been at least a minority of support for diplomacy with Iran," she says. "But there is likely to remain a very strong majority supportive of increasing pressure on Iran so long as there is no agreement on the nuclear issue."

Maloney says any U.S. concessions on the nuclear issue will depend on Tehran's moves. "Of course Iranians want to see something dramatic on our side, but the likelihood of either the administration or certainly the Congress supporting preemptive concessions or dramatic sanctions relaxation prior to any moves on the Iranian side is just, I think, worrisomely unrealistic," she explains.

Earlier this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Tehran would be ready to resume talks on its disputed nuclear program with world powers after Rohani takes office in early August and names his negotiating team.

The current negotiating team, led by defeated presidential candidate Said Jalili, had taken a hard-line approach during previous talks, reportedly with the full support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.