Iran signals effort at new thaw with US

Iran signals effort at new thaw with US

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

In a near staccato burst of pronouncements, statements and speeches by the new president, Hasan Rouhani; his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif; and even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leadership has tweeted Rosh Hashana greetings to Israel, released political prisoners, exchanged letters with President Barack 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.” Rouhani, preparing for a trip to New York next week for the annual gathering of the UN, kept up the dizzying pace 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 scepticism in the West over the new tone emanating from Tehran, and Iran veterans have seen previous thaws in the diplomatic climate disappear seemingly overnight. Obama has spoken of testing Rouhani’s seriousness. But Iran experts, citing the apparent end to Iran’s ideological taboo against direct talks with the US 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 Rouhani’s Holocaust-denying predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who relished every opportunity to ruffle the feathers of Western leaders. But Ahmadinejad’s bellicose nationalism drove Iran into a diplomatic isolation that left it with Venezuela and Syria for allies and saddled with debilitating economic sanctions over its nuclear programme, 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 also with their own people, who desperately want more personal freedoms, analysts say.

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

When he arrives in New York next week, one expert said, Rouhani will be bringing along a package of nuclear proposals on Iran’s nuclear programme, 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 per cent into harmless fuel plates or dilute it down to 3, 5 per cent,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, a political analyst in Tehran who holds moderate views. There could also be talks of Iran’s accepting more inspections by at some point ratifying an additional protocol to the UN’s nuclear nonproliferation treaty, Shabani said.

The German magazine Der Spiegel reported that 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 Shabani said this would not happen. “This site is Iran’s insurance card in case of a military attack,” he said.

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 Obama - an event that would have been all but inconceivable only weeks ago.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said that there were no plans for Obama to meet with 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.