The road that leads into Syria is fraught with danger and uncertainty. But the road out of Syria leads through Iran.
During the last couple of weeks, the Syrian situation fell into an awful muddle. A military strike seemed almost inevitable. But President Barack Obama's apparent ambivalence and Russian President Vladimir Putin's self-serving intervention purchased a little time and breathing room, and as of this writing a diplomatic solution seems possible.
Progress in connection with Syrian President Assad's chemical weapons may even lead to broader peace talks that could resolve the civil war itself.
The diplomatic path to this point was not a thing of beauty, but the destination is more important than the process that got us there.
Best of all, though, this diplomatic pause gives us time to think about Iran, the most prominent feature of the backdrop against which the drama in Syria plays out. The resolution of the essential conflict, of which Syria is only a symptom, will require rapprochement with Iran. Until that happens, we'll continue to live in a chaotic and dangerous world.
Rapprochement with Iran -- probably more important than with Russia -- is a possibility we should take more seriously.
In early September, the newly elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, reportedly sent a tweet wishing a happy Rosh Hashanah to all Jews. Its authenticity is subject to debate. Nevertheless, the possibility that such a tweet might be authentic isn't so outrageous that it kept a number of news agencies from taking the report seriously.
Now reports indicate that all of Rouhani's ministers operate Facebook and Twitter accounts, in an apparent challenge to Internet censorship rules imposed by a powerful clergy that gained the upper hand in the 1979 revolution.
Since 1979, we've been inclined to think of Iran as an oppressive theocracy of Islamic radicals, a perception that obscures a substantial democratic tradition that dates to the late 19th century and a young population with strong inclinations toward the West, modernization and secularization.
Evidence of the real Iran behind the theocratic rule and the anti-Semitic blustering of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can be found in a number of places, but I like the portrait of the Iranian people that Middle East expert Vali Nasr develops in his 2006 book, "The Shia Revival." For example, he argues that, in spite of its imperfections, a democratic tradition is still alive in Iran and that its young population longs for moderation and connections to the West.
Nasr cites the Wall Street Journal to point out that, after English and Mandarin Chinese, the language of Iran, Persian, is the most popular language on the Internet and that Iranians maintain 80,000 blogs.
In fact, Iranians appear to be hungry for the literature that we read freely. Nasr notes that philosopher Immanuel Kant has been translated into Persian more often than into any other language in the past decade. And when Iranians can get them, the books of the great Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez sell briskly.
Couple these indicators -- and many more -- with the civil unrest of 2009 in protest of the re-election of Ahmadinejad and with the recent election of a real moderate to the presidency, and it's clear that our perception of Iran is not nearly nuanced enough.
To Obama: During your initial campaign for the presidency, you took some criticism for saying that you would talk to Iran "without preconditions." I never thought that was a huge mistake. But if it was, note that improvisational, off-the-cuff diplomacy seems to have served you fairly well so far during the current Syrian crisis.
The time for bold thinking has arrived. Rouhani will be coming to New York later this month to address the United Nations. Invite him to the White House. Have a nice lunch. Introduce him to Michelle and the kids. I'm not sure how the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would feel about this. But the Iranian people would love it.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.