It is always as well to be wary in dealing with a diplomatic stalemate that has lasted, off and on, for several decades. Even more so when the country in question is Iran, with whom the opportunity for misrepresentations and misunderstandings – on both sides – is more pronounced than most. Yet more still, given the unpredictability of a domestic political scene in which the remit of the President and the Supreme Leader are not always clear.
The new President is making encouraging noises, though. Not only have political prisoners been released and letters been exchanged with the US President. Hassan Rouhani even tweeted New Year greetings to Iran’s Jews earlier this month. And, most significantly of all, he has – with the express support of the Ayatollah, he says – shifted responsibility for the nuclear programme to a moderate former diplomat who has long-established ties to the US.
So far, so good. Washington is responding, too. Mr Rouhani’s speech at the UN today could, the White House says, be a chance for him to meet Barack Obama. It might be little more than a handshake, but it would still be the first time the US and Iranian presidents have met since the toppling of the Shah in 1979.
There is a long way to go, of course. Without some give on our side, the rapprochement will come to nothing. Equally, though, Mr Obama risks charges of capitulation. The concerns of Israel, which is all set to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, will be difficult to meet in any event. But the prize is a safer, less divided world, and it must be pursued with as much good faith as we can muster. Syria’s civil war, and the threat of regional religious meltdown, only makes that even more urgent.