When President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rowhani spoke at the United Nations on Tuesday, each used a phrase that is key to any nuclear deal.
"The age of zero-sum games is over," Rowhani declared. "This is not a zero-sum endeavor," said Obama (referring to prospects for a deal on Syria, but implying the same approach toward the nuclear issue).
The phrase zero-sum game, loosely interpreted, means that for me to win, you must lose. There is no middle ground. But getting beyond zero-sum politics requires a minimum level of trust, or an ability to verify what the other side has promised. So far both are lacking between Washington and Tehran.
Obama's speech, which specified that the United States doesn't seek Iranian regime change and respects the right of the Iranian people to peaceful nuclear energy, indicates he's open to a reasonable level of bargaining. But Rowhani's remarks indicate that Tehran may still view compromise on the nuclear issue - or on Syria - as an unacceptable American victory. In other words, as a zero-sum game.
Let me say up front that I believe it is essential for Obama to test Iran's bona fides. It would benefit the entire world if Tehran were willing to provide proof that it's no longer pursuing nuclear weapons. We need to know whether Iran is ready to relinquish the equipment, facilities, and supply of fissile material that could enable it to break out a weapon in weeks or months.
Moreover, it's clear that the harsh sanctions instituted under Obama - which have slashed Iran's oil sales and crippled its access to foreign currency - have convinced the regime, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to give Rowhani a broad mandate for negotiations. We will soon see whether he has a green light to limit Iran's nuclear program, or will demand sanctions relief up front, while offering only cosmetic changes that could easily be reversed.
Contrary to pre-speech hopes, Rowhani revealed no details on the U.N. podium. His remarks seemed aimed more at pacifying Iranian hawks back home - the probable reason he avoided a handshake with Obama. His insistence that nuclear weapons contradict Iran's security doctrine and religion was welcome, but it still doesn't explain Iran's pre-2003 weapons program. Nor does it explain the amount of fissile material the regime has produced, which far surpasses any requirements for peaceful use.
What disturbed me more than Rowhani's lack of detail, however, was his take on Syria. While criticizing the United States and its gulf allies for "militarizing" the conflict, he claimed that Iran believes there is "no military solution." This carries cynicism to a new extreme.
Iran is funding, arming, and training Bashar al-Assad's Shiite militias, while airlifting tons of weapons and ammunition into Damascus' airport. Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, is said to be virtually running Assad's war against Sunni rebels. (Don't miss the stunning piece by Dexter Filkins on Suleimani, "The Shadow Commander," in the Sept. 30 issue of the New Yorker.) Suleimani has summoned thousands of Quds Force operatives from Iran, as well as Iraqi Shiite militiamen, to fight alongside Assad's militias. He has also summoned thousands of fighters from Hezbollah, Iran's Shiite ally in Lebanon; they have won critical battles for Assad.
According to Filkins, some consider Suleimani to be the most powerful operative in the Mideast.
So when Rowhani says there's "no military solution" in Syria, he clearly excludes Iran from his formulation. There will be no stability in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq without compromise between Shiites and Sunnis. Yet Iran is stoking sectarian warfare that pits Syrian Shiites against Sunnis, giving the impression that Tehran wants to play a zero-sum game in the Middle East.
In reality, the United States and Iran share common interests in stabilizing the region. Neither wants to see Sunni jihadis take over large parts of Syria or Iraq. Both want to ban chemical weapons, which were deployed to horrific effect by Saddam Hussein against Iranian soldiers. And, in truth, neither Iran nor its Hezbollah proxy can afford a direct war with Israel.
These common interests could provide the basis for a formula to end the Syrian conflict. Yet Rowhani's speech gave little hint that Iran is ready to go beyond the zero-sum strategy of using Shiite forces to try to dominate Mideast politics in an arc from Lebanon through parts of the Arab Gulf.
Unless Iran can dispel fears about its regional intentions, it will be hard to engender the trust necessary to conclude a nuclear agreement. Rowhani is correct that the time for zero-sum politics is over. But he needs to follow his own advice.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.