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Iran's New President Mounts A Charm Offensive



It has been dueling op-eds in recent days. First, Russia's President Vladimir Putin in The New York Times...


Then Senator John McCain in Russia's Pravda.

MONTAGNE: And this morning, in the Washington Post, Iran's new president is reaching out to Americans.

INSKEEP: Hassan Rouhani campaigned on the promise to get the U.S. and the West to ease the sanctions and the embargo that have crippled Iran's economy.

MONTAGNE: Now, as Rouhani prepares to travel to New York to address next week's U.N. General Assembly, he's been sounding quite a bit more cordial than his fiery predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

To get a sense of what all of this mean, we turned earlier to Karim Sadjadpour with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Welcome back to the program.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It's great to be here, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, for those who haven't paid close attention to Iranian politics, let's step back, just for a moment, and have you give us a thumbnail of who Hassan Rouhani, the new president, is.

SADJADPOUR: Well, Hassan Rouhani is a moderate cleric who is a consummate regime insider. Since the 1979 revolution, he's had prominent positions in Iran, particularly as part of Iran's national security establishment. He was never really a politician up until recently and his election was a big surprise.

What he's done since he's been elected has also been surprising. Rouhani and his team have launched arguably one of the greatest charm offensives since Iran's 1979 revolution. They've released political prisoners, they've sent conciliatory gestures to the United States, their foreign minister is going to be spending a couple of weeks in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.

And so I think it's very clear that Rouhani and his team are interested in a detente with the United States. The big question is how much authority they have to be able to carry out that détente.

MONTAGNE: Well, you just said that he has long been an insider. Could he be saying all of this without the backing of the Supreme Leader?

SADJADPOUR: I think their sending out these trial balloons with the blessing of the Supreme Leader. And, in fact, the Supreme Leader himself has advocated a term which is very rare for him. He called for heroic flexibility in Iran's diplomacy and this is someone who, over the course of his three decade tenure as Supreme Leader has really displayed heroic inflexibility. He's just been an incredibly rigid guy.

I think the question is, is this just tactical flexibility in order stave off economic pressure and reduce sanctions or is Iran really thinking about changing their longstanding strategic principles?

MONTAGNE: Well, there's plenty of skepticism out there, especially here in the U.S. as to the sincerity of all these gestures. But what do you think?

SADJADPOUR: Well, this mistrust between the United States and Iran has been building for 35 years and it's not going to be erased overnight with a few conciliatory tweets from Hassan Rouhani or, you know, a statement from the Supreme Leader. There is still tremendous skepticism in Washington, D.C. But the goal of sanctions was pretty simple. It's to subject Iran to enough economic pressure in order to compel it to make meaningful nuclear compromises. And now, if Iran is showing signs that it's interested in commencing a diplomatic process which would culminate in them making meaningful nuclear compromises, I think we have to test that.

MONTAGNE: What would Rouhani have to deliver on to pass that test?

SADJADPOUR: Looking at it only in the nuclear context, Rouhani would have to cap Iran's uranium enrichment activities at a certain level, allow for more frequent inspections of Iran's nuclear sites, more transparency. But I think there are other issues, like Iran's support for Hezbollah, it's rejection of Israel's existence, it's support for the Assad regime in Syria, which have been longstanding ideological principles of the Islamic republic, which are going to be much more difficult for Rouhani to change.

And I would argue it's, in fact, those issues which have been the perennial source of tension between Washington and Tehran, particularly the U.S. Congress. As someone once told me, in the context of domestic U.S. politics, a country can enrich uranium and it can call for Israel's demise, but it can't do both at the same time.

MONTAGNE: Karim Sadjadpour is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks very much for joining us.

SADJADPOUR: Anytime, Renee, thank you.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.