Outlook For U.S.-Iran Relations Brightens With Rouhani

Iran inaugurated its new president over the weekend. President Hasan Rouhani is a moderate who has called for dialogue with the United States. Both countries have expressed an interest in talking again. Linda Wertheimer talks to Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, about U.S.-Iran relations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Iran's new president was sworn in yesterday. Hasan Rouhani has taken a less confrontational tone toward the U.S. than his fiery predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And the Obama administration has suggested it might be able to work with the new government.

To learn more, we're joined in the studio by Vali Nasr, dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Good morning, and Thank you for coming in.

VALI NASR: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Why do you think that so many people think Rouhani might represent a chance for better relations between the U.S. and Iran?

NASR: Well, first of all, because he says so. Even in his inaugural speech he talked about detente with the West. During the campaign, he made a big deal about improving relations between Iran and the West. And also, in his background, when he was chief nuclear negotiator, he was the only Iranian statesman to agree to some kind of a deal - even though it was short-lived - with the international community over nuclear program.

WERTHEIMER: Iran's nuclear ambitions have always been a major problem between the United States and Iran. The West has imposed very strict economic sanctions that are supposed to deter Iran from building weapons. Is there something, some sort of path to compromise that you can see with Rouhani?

NASR: There's always a path to compromise. It requires both sides to take negotiations seriously. I think the sanctions gave Rouhani a great deal of latitude internally, because the country's hurting, and even the Supreme Leader and his conservative factions want to weigh out. But it remains to be seen whether Rouhani's administration and the U.S. administration can actually find a path to compromise.

WERTHEIMER: He seems to have a sort of a different attitude toward talks. He seems to be a much more approachable person. Is that something we're just making up from seeing him smiling on television, or do you think there really is something to that?

NASR: Well, first of all, I do think there's something to that. I mean, he does represent a more centrist, if not reformist path within Iranian politics. And also in diplomacy, attitude and approach and image is very important in creating momentum for talks, and also in creating space, even for the U.S. administration and the Europeans in order to be able to try something new and justify it to their own public.

WERTHEIMER: He's had a considerable amount of problem with his own public. He has high unemployment. Inflation is very high. There are lots of people who are saying privately - and in many cases, a little less privately than they used to - that they're not happy with what is going on in Iran. How does he deal with that?

NASR: Well, there is a great deal of unhappiness in Iran. There's also is a great deal of expectation of him, because now there is a sense that somehow he's going to perform magic and fix the economy and open relations with the West. And that means that he's having a great honeymoon right now, but that very soon, people are going to hold them to account. And I think he has to walk a very tight rope of creating a sense of positive movement, and then try to find a way to relieve some of the pressure on the Iranian economy. This is partly better management domestically, but he has to get something from the West in order to maintain his credibility domestically.

WERTHEIMER: Like what?

NASR: Like some kind of a sanctions relief, some kind of a positive discussion at the negotiating table, so he can go back home and say, I am making progress. Be patient. And I think at some point, he has to show the Supreme Leader, the conservatives and his own base that he actually can deliver something.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much. Vali Nasr is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. It was very good of you to come in.

NASR: Thank you.

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