It's hard not to admire Hasan Rouhani's success. Within weeks of being sworn in as president of Iran, Rouhani has managed to adopt an image of a moderate leader who is striving for peace, who is completely different than his predecessor and who is capable of striking a deal when it comes to the nuclear issue. This moderate image has brought many in the United States and Europe to urge their governments not to miss the historic opportunity that has presented itself with Rouhani's presidency.
Rouhani very much wants to strike an agreement on the nuclear issue. The main expectation of him in Iran is to improve the economic situation, and obviously the way to do that is to get the economic sanctions lifted by signing an agreement and settling the nuclear dispute. Yet, so far, Iran has avoided making any significant concessions in negotiations over the last decade, and its nuclear program is reaching the brink of nuclear weapons development. Rouhani understands that in order to break through the impasse, he must project a new spirit , but without conceding the essentials.
The main component that seems to characterize Rouhani's approach is the attempt to establish trust between Iran and Western governments in order to convince them that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. To do this, he took a few steps back. He clarified that he is backed by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has entrusted him with reaching an agreement on the nuclear issue, and Khamenei himself spoke about the need for "heroic flexibility." Rouhani appointed a new foreign minister who is experienced in dealing with Western countries and gave him the authority to manage the nuclear negotiations, and he called upon the Revolutionary Guards -- known for their extremist approach the U.S. -- not to interfere with politics.
Rouhani's other steps forward are related to his trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. In this respect he took quite a few steps, for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979: He exchanged letters with Obama, sent his foreign minister to meet with the American foreign minister in the presence of other foreign ministers, and he met with the president of France. The content of the letters and the conversations has not been revealed, but it is safe to assume that at such an early stage, they did not stray from general statements.
This approach was also reflected in the two speeches Rouhani made at the U.N. General Assembly. There was nothing new in his words, nor was there a concrete offer on the topic of the nuclear issue. He claimed, as in the past, that Iran has two objectives: to convince the world that Iran's nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes and to get recognition for Iran's right to enrich uranium on its own soil. He also added that it would be possible to negotiate an agreement within three to six months.
Early reports that Rouhani would announce in his speech Iran's willingness to shut down the uranium enrichment facility in Fordo in exchange for the lifting of sanctions proved to be false, and Iran announced that it has no intention of doing as such. It is clear that Iran's demand for the recognition of its right to enrich uranium was designed retain the option to create nuclear weapons.
One may suppose that Rouhani has avoided discussing concessions on the nuclear front so far because he wants to save them for the negotiations -- if they occur -- and to first obtain American willingness to lift sanctions. This way, Iran emphasizes its readiness to strengthen collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and this may also display a willingness for further inspection of its nuclear facilities. However, in the background there are also internal pressures from Iran not to rush to make concessions. Despite Rouhani's call for the Revolutionary Guards not to interfere with politics, they were quick to respond with a call to beware of concessions. It appears that it was pressure of this sort that caused Rouhani to avoid a handshake with Obama after the latter had agreed to it, and instead to settle for a historic and important telephone call.
Soon, a new chapter of nuclear talks will begin. Iran will try to take advantage of the positive atmosphere to obtain various goals, the most important of which being the removal of sanctions. However positivity alone will not be enough, and the U.S. will obviously demand substantial concessions on the nuclear issue. On the other hand, it can be assumed that Iran will agree to specific concessions on the condition that it maintains its ability to achieve nuclear weapons in a short period of time. The question that remains unanswered is if these different approaches will lead to an agreement.
Dr. Ephraim Kam is a former deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies and specializes in security problems of the Middle East, strategic intelligence and Israel's national security issues.