Is Iran Really Trying To Thaw Relations With The U.S.?

Audie Cornish talks to Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, about recent gestures by Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, that hint at a more moderate opening to the West. This is in contrast to Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was downright combative in his relations with the U.S. Rouhani has said that Iran has no military nuclear ambitions. Maloney wrote about the thaw in a recent essay

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour with Iran, and what appears to be an effort on Iran's part to thaw relations with the United States. In a new interview with NBC, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reiterated that his country does not have military nuclear ambitions. He's heard here through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) We have clearly stated that we are not in pursuit of nuclear weapons, and will not be.

CORNISH: In addition to this public relations push, we've also gotten word of letters exchanged between Rouhani and President Obama - all this in contrast to Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is downright combative in his relations with the U.S. So what to make it all? I'm joined now by Suzanne Maloney. She's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution here, in Washington, and an Iran expert. Welcome to the program, Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALONEY: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: Suzanne Maloney, over the last few weeks, we've talked about tweets from Iran. We've talked about Facebook. And now there's - reports about letters, a letter between President Obama and the new president of Iran. How significant is this? Are we hanging a lot here on just very tiny communications?

MALONEY: I think, in fact, we're seeing the process of real important signaling between the Iranian leadership and the Obama administration, in a way that we've never seen before. We have seen one side reach out to the other in the past, and it's often gone unreciprocated. This time around, we, in fact, see some constructive process of dialogue that has been sustained over the period of at least a few weeks. And there seems to be a real interest, and opportunity on both sides, to seize this moment and see where it may take us.

CORNISH: And what's driving this? Is the economic situation in Iran so bad, at this point, that it is warranting a shift in attitude there?

MALONEY: I think it's a combination of factors. Certainly the sanctions that have contributed to a real deterioration of the Iranian economy. Severe inflation, unemployment and a number of other issues have contributed to the decision on the part of the Iranian leadership to moderate their approach to the world. There are at least a few other factors, including the fact that the Iranians have suffered through eight years of a really divisive domestic political arena because of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the sort of polarization of their own politics.

They're looking for some period of stability. They're looking for a more centrist approach and a more pragmatic approach to the world. That's, in fact, consistent with the way that the regime behaved prior to Ahmadinejad's election in 2005.

CORNISH: Now, what evidence have you seen over the last few weeks that the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, backs any of this? Any indication that there would be real political muscle behind the effort?

MALONEY: I think, in fact, that this represents a wholly endorsed term offensive by the entire leadership, and this is something that Ayatollah Khamenei, who is the ultimate authority in Iran, has backed, both in the sense that he enabled the election of Hassan Rouhani on the basis of very forward-leaning slogans and a promise to heal Iran's relationship with the world.

But also, in his own rhetoric, he was - gave a speech just a day or two ago in which he spoke about the need for flexible diplomacy and the need to show a more smiling face to the world. So I think it's quite clear that Khamenei himself is at least in favor of the change in tone, if not the change in substance.

CORNISH: Now, long before he was president, Rouhani was actually criticized for being soft on the West in his role as a nuclear negotiator. Are we seeing any lessons from that in how he's behaving now?

MALONEY: Rouhani was the nuclear negotiator prior to the election of Ahmadinejad. And, in fact, during his stint in this position, Rouhani, now president, managed to push through one of the only significant compromises that we've seen from the Iranians on their nuclear program. He said in his new role that, of course, he would not revert to the position that he, in fact, endorsed back in 2003, which was a suspension of the most worrisome nuclear activities.

But what he has said is that Iran is committed to more transparency and potentially even the kind of constraints on Iran's nuclear capabilities that the West and the rest of the international community has been pushing for for at least six years now.

CORNISH: Suzanne Maloney, thank you so much for talking with me.

MALONEY: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: Suzanne Maloney is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She was a member of the State Department's policy planning staff during the Bush administration and directed the 2004 Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on U.S. policy toward Iran.

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