Iran’s Leaders signal effort at new thaw

TEHRAN — A series of good-will gestures and hints of new diplomatic flexibility from Iran’s ruling establishment was capped on Wednesday by the highest-level statement yet that the country’s new leaders are pushing for a compromise in negotiations over their disputed nuclear program.

In a near staccato burst of pronouncements, statements and speeches by the new president, Hassan Rouhani; his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif; and even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leadership has sent Rosh Hashana greetings to Jews worldwide via Twitter, released political prisoners, exchanged letters with President Obama, praised “flexibility” in negotiations and transferred responsibility for nuclear negotiations from the conservatives in the military to the Foreign Ministry.

“They’re putting stuff out faster than the naysayers can keep up,” said Gary Sick, an Iran expert with Columbia University. “They dominate the airwaves.”

Mr. Rouhani, preparing for a trip to New York next week for the annual gathering of the United Nations, kept up the dizzying pace on Wednesday in an interview with NBC News in which he declared that Iran would never “seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons” and that he had “full power and complete authority” to make a nuclear deal with the West.

There is plenty of skepticism in the West over the new tone emanating from Tehran, and Iran veterans have seen previous thaws in the diplomatic climate disappear seemingly overnight. Mr. Obama has spoken of testing Mr. Rouhani’s seriousness.

But Iran experts, citing the apparent end to Iran’s ideological taboo against direct talks with the United States as well as the apparent concurrence of the supreme leader, say that this new moderation seems different.

Tehran’s turnaround is all the more startling in view of the eight, often bizarre, years of Mr. Rouhani’s Holocaust-denying predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who relished every opportunity to ruffle the feathers of Western leaders. But Mr. Ahmadinejad’s bellicose nationalism drove Iran into a diplomatic isolation that left it with Venezuela and Syria for allies and saddled it with debilitating economic sanctions over its nuclear program, analysts said.

Those sanctions have more than halved Iran’s oil sales, from 2.4 million barrels a day in 2011 to less than 1 million now, and inflation has spiked; the currency, the rial, has fallen by half. It was the danger of falling even deeper into this economic abyss, possibly threatening their hold on power, that prompted Iran’s leaders to mend ties not only with the West but with their own people, who desperately want more personal freedoms, analysts say.

“We are now at a unique moment in the Islamic republic’s history,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to Mr. Rouhani. “Economic reasons are now justifying political reasons to talk to the U.S.”

The current moment differs significantly from an earlier reform period under President Mohammad Khatami, when the rules on public behavior and freedom of expression were relaxed. But in contrast to the current situation, Mr. Khatami never had the serious backing of the Iranian political establishment. “Our supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei, has given the green light; that means there will be no groups trying to sabotage potential talks like in the past,” Mr. Ghorbanpour said.

When he arrives in New York next week, one expert said, Mr. Rouhani will be bringing along a package of proposals on Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes but the West believes is a cover for developing weapons.

“I think he will be able to discuss Iran putting a cap on the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges, the conversion of the stockpile of uranium enriched up to 20 percent into harmless fuel plates or dilute it down to 3, 5 percent,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, a political analyst based in Tehran who holds moderate views. There could also be talks of Iran accepting more inspections by at some point ratifying an additional protocol to the United Nations’ nuclear nonproliferation treaty, Mr. Shabani said.

The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that Mr. Rouhani might also be ready to close down Fordo, Iran’s highly secure mountain bunker, which is believed to be safe from any Israeli attack. But Mr. Shabani said this would not happen. “This site is Iran’s insurance card in case of a military attack,” he said. “I highly doubt Iran would close that down.”

Mr. Rouhani has also indicated that he prefers to negotiate over the nuclear case with the West on the highest political levels possible, and there was even talk of a meeting next week with Mr. Obama, an event that would have been all but inconceivable only weeks ago.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that there were no plans for Mr. Obama to meet with Mr. Rouhani when both leaders are at the United Nations early next week. But he said the president was eager to see whether the issue of Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved.

“As we have long said, the window of opportunity for resolving this diplomatically is open, but it will not remain open indefinitely,” Mr. Carney said.

Mr. Obama, in an interview this week with Noticias Telemundo, mentioned “indications” that Mr. Rouhani “is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States in a way that we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it.”

Mr. Rouhani, asked in the NBC News interview if he thought Mr. Obama looked weak when he backed off from a threat to conduct a missile strike against Syria over a deadly chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, replied: “We consider war a weakness. Any government or administration that decides to wage a war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect to peace.”

The diplomatic offensive by Mr. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mr. Zarif, seems to have been planned months ago. Even as a presidential candidate he was emphasizing that détente with the West was the key to solving Iran’s domestic problems. “You must know that this key can solve the nuclear problem and the sanctions. It will lead to economic growth,” he said in one televised debate in May.

He has long made clear that Iran needs to show more transparency in its nuclear activities, to build trust with the West. “After that we will prevent new sanctions against our country, and gradually they will be lifted so we will be free of all of them,” Mr. Rouhani said.

The recent publicity campaign was probably carefully planned, too, experts said. “Actually it’s kind of a blitz attack that Iran is doing. Their intent is very clear, that is to distinguish themselves — this is the anti-Ahmadinejad,” said Mr. Sick, who was a national security adviser during the Iranian hostage crisis. “I’d say they’re succeeding. They’re also aware there’s a huge degree of skepticism in the West, particularly the United States, and there’s a standard body of opinion that nothing has changed in Iran.”

In the coming weeks and months Iran will be looking for reciprocal steps from the West, analysts say, so that Mr. Rouhani can point to some tangible rewards for his conciliation. Otherwise, nationalist voices in Iran will begin to attack his credibility.

“There has to be some sort of gesture by the U.S.,” Mr. Shabani said. “Iran’s hard-liners will want to see results within six months or so. If not, expect a lot more inflexibility from Iran.”

By The News York Times


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