U.S. To Test The Waters With Iran's New President Rohani

Iran's newly elected president is signaling he might take a more pragmatic, moderate approach to nuclear negotiations with major world powers. But there's a lot of debate in Washington policy circles about what Hassan Rohani's election might mean for the U.S.

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When Barack Obama became president and offered his hand to Iran, that country's elites reacted skeptically. Many said he was a new face, but still represented Iran's great enemy. Now, Iran will have a new face, winner of last week's presidential election, Hassan Rohani. He says he wants better relations with the outside world, so it's America's turn to wonder just how much Rohani could really change in Iran's confrontation with the U.S. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the evidence so far.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hassan Rohani is fairly well known in the West as a foreign policy advisor to past Iranian presidents, says Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution.

MARTIN INDYK: And he was the nuclear negotiator. He's been dubbed the diplomat sheikh for that reason.

KELEMEN: Rohani was the negotiator when Iran suspended its controversial uranium enrichment program in 2003. But while Indyk says the U.S. and its partners need to temper their wishful thinking, there is reason for optimism, because Rohani has a mandate.

INDYK: A resounding mandate. He won in the first round and he ran on a moderate platform of ending Iran's isolation. Therefore, he's in a position to advance a different approach. But we need to give him time and space to be able to do that and the problem is that the nuclear clock is ticking. There isn't a lot of time.

KELEMEN: So how can the U.S. take advantage of this limited opening? Georgetown University's Paul Pillar, a former national intelligence officer, has one suggestion for the five permanent Security Council members, plus Germany, which have been negotiating with Iran.

PAUL PILLAR: The United States and its negotiating partners, need to place on the table a proposal that couples their demands for what we want to see as restrictions in the Iranian nuclear program with significant sanctions relief.

KELEMEN: And that last point, Pillar says, is key.

PILLAR: The fact is that what has been placed on the table so far has been what can only be described as minimal, one might even say trivial sanctions relief, compared to the huge panoply of sanctions that have been piled on Iran over the last several years and that continue to be increased almost monthly, by either the administration or the Congress.

KELEMEN: Pillar says negotiators also have to come up with a creative way to recognize Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program, but with strict international controls. In his first news conference since becoming elected, Rohani told reporters he's willing to be more open.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROHANI: (Speaking foreign language)

KELEMEN: Our nuclear programs have been totally transparent, he says, but we are ready to show more transparency and make it clear to everyone that Iran's actions are in line with international frameworks. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, says he has indications that Iran may be ready to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and adds that it would be unforgivable not to use this opportunity.

Western diplomats have struck a more cautious note, saying they're still waiting for Iran to respond to their last proposal. That was echoed by President Obama, speaking on "The Charlie Rose Show" on PBS this week.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We don't know yet if they're going to be willing to take up that offer. They have not been during my entire first term when we showed ourselves open to these discussions.

KELEMEN: The president says his administration is still willing to talk to Iran, but sanctions relief will take work.

OBAMA: Those will not be lifted in the absence of significant steps in showing the international community that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon.

KELEMEN: There is a good reason for the Obama administration to test the waters, though, says Indyk, director of the foreign policy program at Brookings.

INDYK: We don't have a lot more sanctions that we can put on the Iranians at this point. The next move on the sanctions front is a blockade, which is an act of war.

KELEMEN: And while he believes the U.S. needs to put a juicier deal on the table, he says it also has to be combined with a clearer threat of what will happen if Iran does not agree to curbs on its nuclear program. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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