As a bruising and dispiriting US election campaign draws to a close, it is time to start planning for a transition that builds on the legacy of the Barack Obama administration and looks for new opportunities for resolution of foreign as well as domestic conflicts.

This is particularly the case with Iran, given the important achievement of the landmark nuclear agreement and the breaking of longstanding taboos about US-Iran official contacts.

In a new paper for the Atlantic Council, Ellen Laipson, a distinguished former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council and former president of the Stimson Center, outlines a strategy that is open to new opportunities without minimizing continuing challenges from the Islamic Republic.

Entrenched hostility on both sides precludes a “grand bargain,” Laipson said at an event Oct. 19 at which the paper was launched. But incremental progress is possible because “Iran is not a pure adversary,” she said. “I’d like to see us take a little more risk in deepening the channels for engagement.”

The first step is to make sure that the avenues established by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) do not atrophy after Obama leaves office. Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry, Laipson said, should facilitate contact between his successor and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to make sure the “baton is passed.”

The Joint Commission set up to implement the JCPOA also provides a conduit for lower-level interaction between the departments of State, Treasury and Energy and Iranian counterparts.

“Diplomatic engagement must be the lead component … to prepare for the possibility of gradual change in the US-Iran relationship,” Laipson writes in the paper.

Some pundits have argued for a policy of “congagement” in which containment of Iran’s regional activities is combined with diplomatic outreach. However, there is a danger that the next administration will seek to over-compensate traditional partners such as Saudi Arabia to convince them that there is no US tilt toward Tehran.

Laipson’s paper acknowledges a need for continued support for these partners especially in the next few years but says that “some attention to ways to adjust containment over time would be useful, to identify things Iran can do to build trust that would allow for adjustments in the US posture.”

“US policy pronouncements have to demonstrate a deeper understanding of Iran’s own legitimate interests and perceived national security requirements,” she writes, “and must not set the bar for change too high.”

Laipson reiterates policy recommendations made by the Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force three years ago that stress the importance of people-to-people ties even if government-to-government relations do not dramatically improve. She says the US government should devote more resources “to improving the visa process” for Iranians seeking to come to the United States to study and for other exchanges.

Ideally, the US would send American diplomats to staff an Interests Section in Tehran. But that is probably more than Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is prepared to accept at this time.

Laipson anticipates more robust US-Iran economic interaction eventually, which would require a lessening of US sanctions that remain in place after the JCPOA. She also suggests building on the nonproliferation aspects of the agreement “to consider some of the JCPOA elements as standard practice” such as adherence to the Additional Protocol of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty by other countries in the region.

Iran, of course, gets a major say in how relations will evolve. Continued divisions within the Iranian government — and actions such as the prosecution and conviction of Iranian-Americans Siamak and Baquer Namazi on absurd charges – cast a pall over US-Iran ties and are a major disincentive to the foreign direct investment the Iranian economy urgently needs.

To use such incidents as an excuse to give up on engagement with Iran, however, would be to reward hardliners and punish those seeking Iran’s reintegration into the international community.

The Iranian people, which has been generally pro-American in the past, has begun to blame the United States for the fact that economic benefits promised under the JCPOA have yet to materialize, noted Amir Handjani, an Iranian-American businessman and Atlantic Council board director, at Wednesday’s event.

The next administration could do more to facilitate Iran’s return to the international financial system by including an American bank in the consortium that finances an upcoming sale of Boeing passenger liners to Iran Air. That might convince large European banks that it is safe to resume routine business with Iranian counterparts.

Over the past four decades, the United States and Iran have had more downs than ups but the JCPOA provided “a new baseline” for bilateral relations, Laipson said. The next US administration should safeguard this achievement and look for ways to build on it that will be in the mutual interest of the American and Iranian people.

Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.