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Hassan Rouhani, at the time Iran's president-elect, gestures to the media during a news conference in Tehran June 17, 2013. (Reuters)

The moment of truth is coming. All the optics from Tehran – even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal. If a deal can’t be made in the next few months, it’s hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.

And yet skepticism about the ability of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, to cut a deal is certainly warranted. Iranian presidents have much less power – especially on foreign and security affairs – than the supreme leader. And yes, Khamenei’s recent public statements remain full of suspicion and enmity toward the West. But even Khamenei seems to be signaling his desire to find an end to the nuclear stalemate. On September 17, in a meeting with senior Revolutionary Guard commanders, he addressed them on the question of “flexibility:” “A wrestler can even show flexibility sometimes, but he does not forget who his rival is and what his main goal is.”

Indeed, the supreme leader has been less than his usual vitriolic self when it comes to U.S. policy toward Syria. In a September 11 speech, he was downright complimentary: “If [U.S. leaders] are serious about their recent outlook, this means that they have turned back from the wrong path which they have been taking during the last few weeks.”

Meanwhile, ever since he took office, Rouhani has been on a public relations offensive aimed at the West and reformists within his country. His most recent salvo was an interview with NBC News in which he said he had full authority to conclude a nuclear deal with the West. He has also recently exchanged letters with President Barack Obama, overseen the release of 11 political prisoners, and cautiously warned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps about getting involved in the political arena. When in New York City this week for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, Rouhani will have a chance to transform this thaw in relations into a real diplomatic opportunity.

If Iran’s recent political history holds true, Rouhani has a unique window of opportunity to win sanctions relief. The last three Iranian presidents before him were able to influence policy in their first year before their powers faded. Each came into office with a strong agenda: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s goal was economic liberalization; Mohammad Khatami aimed for a cultural opening, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad peddled a populist message. And all three were successful in making progress at the start of their terms – though they all ran into strong resistance from the supreme leader as their tenure dragged on, which reversed their policies.

“It would be a smart move by [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei – indeed, smarter than his usual practice – to send [President Hassan] Rouhani out to see what kind of a nuclear deal he can get from the United States.” – Patrick Clawson, The Washington Institute

Rouhani is even better placed than his predecessors to have real influence. He enjoys support from a broad swath of the Iranian political spectrum – from hard-liners to reformists – in no small part because of the lessons each camp is drawing from developments across the region. Hard-liners realize that the “resistance policy” advocated by the previous team has not worked well. Resistance has brought Iran only more sanctions, led Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the brink of disaster, and lost Hezbollah the broad public support it once commanded across the region. They see Rouhani’s strategy as a new approach toward the same goals, and they are willing to give it a try.

As for Iran’s reformers, they look to Cairo and see what happened to deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as a sobering lesson for what could have happened in Iran had they prevailed in 2009. A sharp confrontation with the old system and the security forces it controls, in other words, could have quickly brought about a de facto coup.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) gives his official seal of approval to then President-elect Hassan Rouhani, in an official endorsement ceremony in Tehran, Iran, August 3, 2013. (AP)

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) gives his official seal of approval to then President-elect Hassan Rouhani, in an official endorsement ceremony in Tehran, Iran, August 3, 2013. (AP)

Rouhani has also made good use of the support he commands. Though his election was as much a surprise as that of his two immediate predecessors, he has quickly assembled an impressive team of like-minded, effective technocrats – most of whom are acceptable to the hard-liners. His style is the smile, not the snarl, which disarms critics used to the previous crowd’s exaggerated rhetoric.

Iran’s new president does not needlessly pick fights like Ahmadinejad did, whether with foreigners over the Holocaust or young Iranians over Twitter. Rouhani’s Rosh Hashanah greeting from a semiofficial Twitter account was just his style – crafted to impress foreigners, but also framed in religious terms that gave hard-liners eager to criticize little to grab on to. Rouhani’s book, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy – which made the case that the deals negotiated with European powers in 2003 and 2004 preserved Iran’s options while forestalling international pressure – may serve as a blueprint for his current strategy.

It would be a smart move by Khamenei – indeed, smarter than his usual practice – to send Rouhani out to see what kind of a nuclear deal he can get from the United States. From Khamenei’s perspective, it’s a win-win scenario: If his president can get a good deal which preserves Iran’s nuclear options, fine. If no deal is reached, Iran will still have gained many months in which its nuclear program can progress.

It is hard to know how the recent developments about Syria have influenced Khamenei’s thinking. It is possible he had already discounted the possibility of a U.S. strike on Iran, in which case the obvious U.S. reluctance to use force against Syria may come as no surprise to him. On the other hand, he has long insisted that the nuclear issue is only an excuse used by the United States to pursue its real objective of regime change in Iran, and he has similarly argued that the West’s professed humanitarian concerns about Syria are a cover for its true objective of displacing Assad. Perhaps Khamenei will recalculate in the face of the evident willingness of President Barack Obama’s administration to concentrate so exclusively on controlling weapons of mass destruction that it was prepared to sacrifice the Syrian opposition, and to largely ignore human rights concerns.

In his September 17 speech, Khamenei referred to a passage in a book he translated 40 years ago on the revered second Shi’ite Imam Hassan’s peace treaty with Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty – a treaty the likes of which Khamenei had once vowed Iran could never be pressured into again. The treaty was entered into under great duress: Hassan agreed to it when faced with superior forces on the field of battle. Its outcome was at best mixed: The line of descent was preserved (Hassan was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed), but Hassan gave up rule over the Muslim community to Muawiyah and was years later almost certainly poisoned on Muawiyah’s orders. But speaking on September 17, Khamenei took a rosier view of the seventh-century peace deal: “I agree with what I called ‘heroic flexibility’ years ago, because such an approach is very good and necessary in certain situations, as long as we stick to our main principles.”

Perhaps in this newfound respect for Hassan’s treaty, Khamenei was signaling that another Hassan – Hassan Rouhani – may need to be equally supple in the face of superior forces, even if the results are mixed.

A version of this post was originally published under a similar headline on WashingtonInstitute.org. ©2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Reprinted with permission.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

Patrick Clawson

Patrick Clawson is director of research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

4 Comments

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  2. Harry Weaver

    September 23, 2013

    What an amazing arrogance!
    Why does anybody have to ‘make a deal with the United States’?
    They may think they are the United Nations these days, but they aren’t.
    Facts:
    (1) The Supreme Leader issued a Fatwa some years ago, to the effect that no nuclear weapons were ever to be made in Iran, as they were contrary to the ways of Allah. This is a holy edict. If anybody were ever to be discovered doing it, they would immediately lose their head, under Sharia law, no redress.
    (2) Iran has never enriched Uranium above the level required for medical isotopes.
    (3) Islam’s two most holy sites are in Saudi Arabia. The rest are in Jerusalem, making Netanyahu’s continuous bleatings about the ‘threat’ of attack by Iran upon Israel ludicrous and the work of an overly obvious liar. He is also America’s proxy mouth piece in the Middle East.
    (4) Syria, immediately to the north of Israel, and one of Iran’s principle allies, is required to be in a weakened state to the point of being completely subjugated.
    (5) Iran, with a daily production in excess of 4.2 million barrels/day, is the world’s fourth largest oil producer.

    There are others, but it all spells out the fact that America is looking extremely ugly these days.
    When are you going to do something substantial about that, rather than providing weak rationales for a gaping maw that is no longer content to exist within it’s own national boundaries any longer, while it continues to drain its population, to feed a voracious ‘Defence Budget’, that are already to the point where vacant premises out number the homeless by 28-1?

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  3. Satish Chandra

    September 23, 2013

    (Sept 13 ‘13) India’s status as the sole superpower resides in the person of Satish Chandra. Russia still has thousands of nuclear warheads and, in principle, is a superpower but its rulers have been bribed and are controlled by the CIA. India’s rulers are also controlled by the CIA but, even if they were not, they have neither the knowledge nor intelligence nor courage nor character to make India a superpower. Only Satish Chandra does.

    In response to the above, today (Sep 13 ’13) “Arms deals worth Rs. 15,000 crore cleared” (Times of India) by defence minister and 3 service chiefs to buy arms from enemy United States instead of Research & Development in India and “India lures chip makers, says IBM and STMicro interested” (Reuters) by minister Kapil Sibal who sits at CIA-supplied terminals to commit crimes against me and India, instead of Research & Development in India. Destroying RAW, defence minister, 3 service chiefs, minister Sibal, etc. is part of making/keeping India the sole superpower.

    The CIA’s sponsorship of Modi is meant to bring India under direct American colonial rule starting with ‘joint operations’ with India to catch CIA-sponsored terrorists such as Dawood in Pakistan and later also in India as was done to catch CIA-RAW-sponsored Indian Mujahideen chief Yasin Bhatkal on the Nepal border ‘on a tip from the American Federal Bureau of Investigation’. Destroying all BJP, Congress Party and other politicians and bringing the media, at present instruments of the CIA in promoting filth like Modi and suppressing Satish Chandra who is unknown to the public, under control is also a part of making/keeping India the sole superpower.

    There should be no elections in India until the public is familiar with Satish Chandra and his life and work, after which the public will automatically lynch all politicians. But this will not happen because the media are still controlled by CIA-RAW and the meek acceptance for centuries of rule by the British who killed over ten million Indians in just the ten years after 1857 in just Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar and the ferocious loyalty to the Anglo-Americans of Indians both in government (prime examples of which are the Intelligence Bureau and RAW — WhatYouShouldKnowAboutRAWDOTblogspotDOTcom — who go to unlimited lengths to sabotage and damage India in service of their Anglo-American masters) and outside shows that the Indian public can be mobilized for Hindu-Muslim riots by the Intelligence Bureau and RAW, that is all it is capable of. Since India’s status as the sole superpower is based on nuclear weapons emplaced in U.S. cities, the public is not needed to destroy Washington, New York and RAW and, later, for the coast-to-coast destruction of the enemy United States.

    (Sept 14 ‘13) I have said that the destruction of Washington and New York should preferably be carried out during working hours (9 am to 5 pm; it is now daylight saving time there so clocks are one hour ahead of standard time), Washington and New York time, on a working day in Washington and New York, though other days and times are also good. This still holds.

    Satish Chandra

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  4. Satish Chandra

    September 23, 2013

    INDIA IS NOW THE SOLE SUPERPOWER AND ITS CONSEQUENCES FOR U.S. – IRAN RELATIONS

    (Sep 20 ‘13) The following, because of which the United States had to back off from its threatened attack on Syria and which meant it had to give up its belligerence toward Iran also, is responsible for the overtures between Iran and the United States (“Possible meet between Obama and Rouhani in US”) but India‘s plans for the nuclear destruction of Washington and New York and then the coast-to-coast destruction of the United States remain unchanged:-

    INDIA IS NOW THE SOLE SUPERPOWER

    (Aug 27, 2013) If India’s nuclear forces explode India’s nuclear warheads emplaced in Washington and New York during the American attack on Syria without acknowledging they did it, no one will know whether Russia, China, North Korea or Pakistan did it. If the U.S. does identify India as the source and wants to retaliate (against what?), there is the standing warning that additional U.S. cities will be destroyed in case of any retaliation. This is a great opportunity to destroy the enemy even if the U.S. does not attack Syria — though any day is a great day for destroying the enemy United States and India need not wait for an “opportunity”.

    (Sep 2 ‘13) If it is France, not the United States, which attacks Syria, Washington and New York should be destroyed as during an attack by the United States; destroying the United States is for its crimes against India, not Syria, including the suppression of India’s legitimate ruler with the help of 24-hour satellite surveillance for the past 36 years. IndiasLegitimateRulerSatishChandraDOTblogspotDOTcom

    (Sep 9 ‘13) If Syria does disarm itself, of chemical weapons or anything else, to get rid of American threats — since the paragraph dated August 27 ‘13 above American threats have been empty threats meant to make it appear that it had not surrendered though the U.S. and all its allies had backed off and surrendered within 24 hours or less of my saying what I said in the paragraph dated August 27 ‘13 — such disarming should be taken as the same as the attack the U.S. was threatening and India should proceed with the destruction of Washington and New York and should proceed with the destruction of Washington and New York no matter what the U.S. does or says regarding Syria or anything else.

    (Sept 11 ‘13) Russia’s asking Syria to disarm itself of chemical weapons to avoid an American attack was in support of the United States’ empty threats of attack because the U.S. had surrendered after the paragraph dated August 27 ‘13 above and everything after that was pretense meant to save face; it was also a stab in the back of Syria because by asking Syria to unnecessarily disarm, Russia was collaborating with Syria’s enemy. Putin says he had agreed with Obama during the G-20 to have Syria disarm itself of chemical weapons. A former senior CIA officer had called Yeltsin “a creature of CIA support”. This is even more so for Putin who is managed by the CIA on a minute-by-minute basis and has hundreds of billions of dollars in his foreign bank accounts from kickbacks from the loot of Russia’s natural resources by Americans and others. Iran expressed approval of the plan to disarm Syria hoping it will escape an American attack. After I pointed out in the paragraph dated September 9 ‘13 above that the U.S. and allies had surrendered after my paragraph dated August 27 ‘13 and there is no threat of attack, Syria has said it will unveil its chemical arms but not surrender them. The Russian stab in Syria’s back has a lesson for India which just lost a Russian-built submarine to microwave signals from U.S. satellites — that today’s Russia cooperates with the United States in ‘screwing’ countries like India (well, the KGB assassinated Shastri at the CIA‘s request as I have described so it is not totally new). When I recently reiterated that all terrorist and separatist groups in the subcontinent are sponsored and controlled by the CIA via RAW and similar entities in Pakistan, etc. — during Yeltsin’s time 15 years ago I chided Russian intelligence agencies for emulating RAW and staging an attack by ‘separatists’ on an apartment building in Moscow that killed hundreds — the unspeakably filthy Home Minister said he has agreed with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation on a joint operation to catch Dawood from Pakistan. Now with Russia cooperating with the U.S. in ‘screwing’ India, India’s so-called government will switch to buying American defence equipment (on which Putin will get a cut from the Americans). This reaffirms the necessity for India’s nuclear forces to destroy RAW headquarters, South Block and North Block as well.

    (Sep 12 ‘13) There were headlines in some Arab media on September 11 ‘13 saying Syria will unveil its chemical arms, not surrender them. There was a similar headline about plans for Syria to “unveil” its chemical arms over an AFP report in the Hindustan Times today (Sep 12 ‘13). It seems these headlines may have been placed by the CIA to mislead me. There is an Interfax story today that the Syrian president told Russian television that he agreed to give up chemical arms because Putin asked him to, not because of American threats; earlier reports had said Putin asked him to give up chemical arms to avoid American attacks. Russia and the United States are part of the same team engaging in a ‘good cop – bad cop’ routine and both are enemies of countries like India. When a Syrian nuclear reactor was bombed and destroyed by Israel a few years ago, Syria did not even admit such a bombing occurred. Such is the behavior of the oppressed. The American media today are trumpeting the CIA supplying arms to those fighting the Syrian government just as the CIA arms and supports separatist groups in India. Without nuclear weapons to use against countries that do, you are in the deepest slavery to the latter. The oppressed have been bludgeoned into accepting this slavery. The Indian public is totally unaware of the horrendous crimes of the Americans against India, because of CIA control of the media. Under CIA’s orders, the Indian media a thousand times every day announce that the CIA-sponsored Modi’s anointment as prime ministerial candidate is “imminent” to keep the “momentum” from lapsing. This will change with the nuclear destruction of Washington, New York and RAW and, later, the coast-to-coast destruction of the United States.

    Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries joining the United States in its aggression against Syria, instead of fighting their common enemy the United States, is due to the fact that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are also oppressed, even more than Syria and trying to save themselves by joining the aggressor. It will be a temporary reprieve. Only India is in a position to destroy the United States. India is the sole superpower today; besides being able to destroy the United States, India can compel the United States to destroy any other country in the world. After destroying Washington and New York, for example, India can compel the United States to use its nuclear armed ICBMs to destroy Moscow and St. Petersburg or have two more of its own cities destroyed (Russia can only retaliate at the cost of having all of Russia destroyed by hundreds of American nuclear armed ICBMs). There is nothing that either the United States or Russia can do to prevent this. It will not be necessary, however, to destroy any Russian cities because the United States is the sole enemy; the enmity of others is derivative because they — such as Russia — are now vassals of the United States.

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