Sept. 19 (Bloomberg) -- After eight years of bellicose rhetoric from his predecessor, Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s smiling face is prompting a debate about whether his outreach is a promise or a ploy.
In an interview that aired last night on NBC, Rohani said Iran won’t develop nuclear weapons, and in the last month he’s exchanged letters with President Barack Obama and named a diplomat known as a moderate as his foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator. Earlier this week, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for “heroic flexibility” in negotiations.
Some Iran-watchers are hailing what they call an unprecedented opportunity to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program and end the country’s international isolation. Others who doubt Iran’s motives, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, say previous would-be reformers have all failed and Rohani’s charm offensive is a ploy to win relief from economic sanctions.
“We shouldn’t blindly accept the deceitful words of the Iranian president,” Netanyahu’s office said today in a statement. “The Iranians are using spin in the media in order to continue to spin their centrifuges.”
Current and former U.S. policy makers say they’re reserving judgment until Rohani’s words are matched by actions.
“The Iranians have launched a very serious and skillful public diplomacy campaign as a way of preparing the ground for negotiations” and are hoping “the image of reasonableness and flexibility” will persuade the international community to relax sanctions, said Robert Einhorn. He served as the Obama administration’s special adviser on nonproliferation until earlier this year and was a member of the U.S. negotiating team at several rounds of talks with Iran.
Einhorn, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an interview that the U.S. and its partners “can’t rely on these encouraging statements. The test will be the positions the Iranians take at the negotiating table.”
Obama has said Iran’s more conciliatory tone should be put to the test, and the administration hasn’t ruled out an Obama-Rohani meeting during the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York next week. White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday only that “there are currently no plans” for such an encounter.
“It’s fair to say that the president believes there is an opportunity for diplomacy when it comes to the issues that have presented challenges to the United States and our allies with regards to Iran, and we hope that the Iranian government takes advantage of this opportunity,” Carney told reporters.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said he will meet with the Iranian president next week, told reporters today in New York that he is pleased Iran is taking “some concrete steps” to deliver on Rohani’s campaign promises.
Iran’s only Jewish lawmaker said he will be part of Rohani’s delegation, the Associated Press reported from Tehran.
At stake are Iran’s nuclear program and the threat of military force by Israel, the U.S. or both if Iran moves to build a nuclear weapon, balanced against the possibility of improved relations after three decades of distrust if Iran resolves the international concerns over its nuclear research.
The U.S. and other members of the UN Security Council, as well as Israel, say they have evidence that Iran is secretly trying to develop the ability to make nuclear weapons.
Iran says its uranium enrichment and other programs are for civilian energy and medical research.
“We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and we are not going to do so,” Rohani, who said he has “full authority” to resolve the matter, said in the interview with Ann Curry of NBC News that aired last night. “We solely are looking for peaceful nuclear technology.”
In a meeting with commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Sept. 17, Khamenei appeared to support a new approach to international talks, comparing Iran to a wrestler who “may exercise flexibility for a tactical reason, but won’t forget who his rival is and what his goal is.”
While Iran’s goal remains subject to debate, there have been multiple signs of moderation since Rohani took office Aug. 4. Yesterday, the Iranian government released 10 political prisoners, including lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, according to the official Iranian Student News Agency. The government has eased press restrictions, limited anti-Western rhetoric and wished Jews a Happy Jewish New Year from the Twitter Inc. account of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Rohani’s cabinet members have opened accounts with Menlo Park, California-based Facebook Inc. and held regular press briefings. The culture ministry reopened the House of Cinema, a Tehran-based center for filmmakers and artists that was shut under the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Zarif is the most frequent Facebook user among the cabinet members, with more than 220,000 followers. Already in New York in advance of the General Assembly, the foreign minister has been posting accounts of his activities, including dinner last night with ambassadors from the Middle East and 14 meetings scheduled for today.
The reactions from a dozen Iran specialists interviewed about the new government’s message of openness ranged from optimism to disbelief. The skeptics called Zarif’s Rosh Hashanah message disingenuous after years of anti-Israel vitriol from Ahmadinejad and, according to the U.S. government, Revolutionary Guard plots and terrorist attacks against Jews, Western interests and even Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and an advocate of tough sanctions on Iran, dismissed the Jewish New Year message as a stunt. He said the only leaders whose attitudes matter are Iran’s supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard.
If Khamenei is Iran’s chairman of the board and the head of the Revolutionary Guard is the chief operating officer, Rohani and Zarif are “vice presidents for marketing and sales,” Dubowitz said.
Some longtime Iran specialists, including former U.S. Ambassador John Limbert, counter that without Khamenei’s implicit backing, Rohani, a cleric and early follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 revolution, and Zarif, who served five years as Iran’s UN ambassador, wouldn’t be able to take the steps they have.
Rohani as Insider
Limbert, a Farsi-speaker who as a young diplomat was held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days, called Rohani “very much an insider. These folks know each other well and have been together through three decades of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They know each other’s ideas and thoughts. They don’t need to get explicit orders to do this or that.”
“I’m willing to curb my enthusiasm,” Limbert, now a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, said in an interview. “There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical given past performance, but you’ve got to have some patience. If we could never agree on anything, then I’d still be in Tehran” as a hostage.
The deep-seated mutual distrust since the 1979 revolution, hostage crisis and rupture in relations between the U.S. and Iran undermines the ability of either side to recognize or accept a good deal when one is presented, he said.
Under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. offered a road map to better relations without preconditions, and Iran walked away. Likewise, when Iran offered what was called a grand bargain in 2003, the Bush administration ignored the opportunity and Iran disavowed it, according to Limbert.
“The history has been if one side takes up what looks like a promising opening, then that opening disappears,” he said. “The attitude on both sides has been: Anything they offer has got to be cheating us, and if they show interest in an offer we made, then obviously it wasn’t a good offer.”
Barbara Slavin, author of “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation” and the only American print journalist granted a visa to cover Rohani’s inauguration, said she was struck last month that “there’s even more skepticism of him in Iran” than there is overseas.
Ordinary Iranians are so frustrated and unhappy about the weak economy that Rohani “has got to do a lot to justify his election,” she said.
The economy may be a driving force behind Iran’s push to negotiate over its nuclear program. Iran’s oil exports, the country’s main source of revenue, have fallen by half to less than 1 million barrels a day since U.S. and European Union sanctions went into effect in July 2012, according to the International Energy Agency in Paris.
U.S. officials have said targeted sanctions that began in earnest in 2010 are one cause of the economic meltdown. Slavin also cites what she calls “the grotesque mismanagement of the economy under Ahmadinejad.”
Slavin, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, a research institute in Washington, called the outreach by Rohani and Zarif “a do-over for both the pragmatists and the reformists, a chance to do what they couldn’t accomplish a decade ago.”
The skeptics cites failures by past presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami to moderate Iran’s international policy and resolve concerns over its nuclear program, which began under the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran.
Slavin calls the current opening different because the reformist camp “has expanded and become the clear majority in Iran, even within the political elite. This is a big opportunity for them and they are tremendously motivated” and “they know if they don’t improve the economic situation, there will be regime change in Iran, one way or another.”
Rohani may have limited time to ease sanctions before frustration grows at home. Iran’s economy contracted 5.4 percent in the year ended in March as inflation reached 40 percent, Rohani said in an interview with state television.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said, “Rohani is partially benefiting from the fact that Ahmadinejad set the bar so low in terms of Iran’s public diplomacy. So long as Rohani doesn’t deny the Holocaust, he’s seen as a moderate in comparison.”
So long as a hard-line revolutionary such as Khamenei remains supreme leader of Iran, Sadjadpour said, Rohani and his circle “‘are the best group of potential interlocutors America can hope for in Tehran.’’
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com