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Syrian rebels continue to fight, but an unlikely detente has formed between the U.S. and Iran as the UN General Assembly prepares to meet.Reuters

As world leaders descend on New York for the annual spectacle of the United Nations General Assembly, top billing belongs to the diplomatic wrangling between the United States and Russia over the fate of Syria's chemical-weapons program.

But keep an eye on the sideshow: the possibility that U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rowhani could "accidentally" meet on the sidelines of the UN gathering.

The debate over how fast Syria should hand over its arsenal of chemical weapons – and the thorny question how any such promise might be enforced – is targeted at halting the further use of chemical weapons in the country's bloody civil war. But a new relationship between the U.S. and Iran is perhaps the only way to bring Syria's war to an end, and it also holds the possibility of delivering a broader peace to the Middle East.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. and Iran seemed on the brink of a region-wide proxy war, with Mr. Obama advocating military strikes to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of sarin gas in attacks on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, and Iran thought ready to defend its ally by having its client Hezbollah militia launch attacks against Israel.

Everyone has since stepped back from the edge. Instead of missiles, Mr. Obama and Mr. Rowhani have acknowledged exchanging letters, something that has raised expectations the two could briefly meet next week. Even a handshake would have huge symbolism: It would be the first between U.S. and Iranian leaders since Jimmy Carter met Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1977.

Mr. Rowhani's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, is already set to meet in New York with European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton. The two are expected to set a date for the resumption of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

Observers of Iran say the election in June of the practical Mr. Rowhani has created an opportunity to reset relations between Iran and the West after more than three decades of antagonism. The Scottish-educated Mr. Rowhani was carried to office by young voters who want him to fix the country's ailing economy, preferably by ending the crippling sanctions imposed by the U.S. and UN. That would require Tehran to agree to curbs on its nuclear energy program, which many in the West believe is civilian cover for an effort to build atomic weapons.

For now, Mr. Rowhani seems to have the blessing of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to negotiate. As news emerged this week of the exchange of letters with Mr. Obama – carried out via the Swiss embassy in Tehran – Ayatollah Khamenei responded he was "not opposed to proper moves in diplomacy."

"[Ayatollah Khamenei] is effectively saying to President Rowhani and Foreign Minister Zarif to do what's required to seal a deal," said Peter Jenkins, a former British ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency. "I think it's incontrovertible that President Rowhani … believes the [dispute over Iran's nuclear program] is soluble and he wants to see it solved – in no small part because he's promised the electorate he would get the economy going. And to do that, he needs the sanctions regime lifted."

In an apparent gesture of goodwill, Iran on Wednesday released a dozen prominent political prisoners, including human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, whose case had been publicly raised by Mr. Obama. In an interview with ABC news, Mr. Rowhani declared he had "full power and complete authority" to negotiate about Iran's nuclear program. "The problem won't be on our side. We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem," he said.

But a deal that would see Iran slow or freeze its nuclear effort in exchange for a new relationship with the U.S., and perhaps the lifting of some sanctions, is only one piece of the puzzle. Iran, via its alliances with Mr. al-Assad and Hezbollah – as well as Shia Muslim groups in Iraq and Bahrain, as well as the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad – is in conflict with Washington and its allies across the Middle East.

Some believe that a handshake between Mr. Obama and Mr. Rowhani could begin a conversation about how to stop the fighting – often pitting Sunni Muslims backed by U.S. ally Saudi Arabia against Shiites funded by Iran – now raging from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. The possibility of ending Iran's nuclear program could even be a carrot to encourage Israel to make concessions in its own staggering peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Baby steps for now, of course. The Middle East has for decades been a place where cynics are proven right as peace plans dissolve.

Mr. Obama would have a hard time selling any deal to Saudi Arabia and Israel, two countries that view the Islamic Republic as an existential threat – and that have powerful allies in Washington. "[Mr. Obama] doesn't have a lot of leeway," said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. "Who knows if Congress will lift these sanction? They're congressional sanctions, not presidential sanctions. There's a serious question of what the American President can deliver."

But Iran-watchers contend the White House must nonetheless seize the moment and try to change Washington's relationship with Tehran. Otherwise Iran's reformers will fail and the regime's conservatives will be empowered one more time.

"If the West doesn't want war, they have to deal with Rowhani," said Baqer Moin, author of Khomeini, Life of the Ayatollah. "[Ayatollah Khamenei] will support Rowhani. But if he doesn't come up with any results from his opening to the West, he will limit [Mr. Rowhani's] room to negotiate. The momentum has to be seized."