Watching the diplomatic dance between Iran and the U.S. leading up to the unprecedented phone call from President Obama to President Hassan Rouhani, one had to ask, Are we seeing a replay of 1972? That was the year when after decades of estrangement, China and the U.S. began a reconciliation that changed the world. Are Washington and Tehran, locked in their own decades-old state of antagonism, on the verge of a similar change of heart?
In a word, no. The U.S. and China were pushed toward each other by the most powerful force in international relations--a common enemy. By the late 1960s, China had begun to view the Soviet Union as its principal national-security problem, and the U.S. saw an opportunity to make common cause with Beijing. There is no such common enemy driving Washington and Tehran together.
There is, however, one similarity. China in the early '70s was at its lowest point economically. Iran's economy has been devastated by tough U.S.-backed sanctions, as well as the burden of providing arms and treasure to the unpopular, embattled regime in Syria. In addition, the mullahs in Tehran are aware that the deep discontent that bubbled to the surface in the shape of the pro-reform Green movement only four years ago still lurks within their society.
We now know that the change in U.S.-China relations in 1972 led inexorably to China's becoming the economic power it is today--rich, market-based and open to the world. But that path was not at all visible 40 years ago, least of all to the Chinese. Even after 1972, the regime under Mao Zedong was thoroughly communist and largely hostile to the West. After Mao's death came years of internal struggle and chaos and then, unpredictably, the rise to power of China's real modernizer, Deng Xiaoping, who set his country on its great transformation. To make the parallel, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, is Mao, not Deng. And whatever Rouhani's views, he cannot change the nature of the regime.
In fact, the better analogy to consider for U.S.-Iran relations is that of another 1972 meeting, between Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow. It was the first time an American President had paid a state visit to the U.S.S.R., and it resulted in the beginning of détente--a series of steps that de-escalated the Cold War and allowed for better contact. For now, that might be the most one can expect for relations between the U.S. and Iran.
And yet détente with Iran is possible and worth pursuing. Its outlines would look like this: Iran would agree to cap its enrichments of uranium at 5%; at that level, it would be difficult and time-consuming for it to move its nuclear program from a civilian to a military stage. Iran has already enriched some quantities of uranium up to 20%, making them easily and quickly convertible into weapons-grade fuel. This stockpile would have to be shipped out of the country. Iran has recently rejected this suggestion, but in 2010 it accepted a similar deal. It might do so again, if it is allowed to keep the uranium it wants for medical purposes.