The Cable

20 Signs Iran Is Serious About a Nuclear Deal

Is the world on the verge of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran?

With the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York fast approaching next week, it's a question that is all but certainly being debated in foreign ministries around the world. But given the lack of clarity over who makes final policy decisions in Tehran, and the long history of failed diplomatic agreements between Iran and the West, it's a devilishly difficult question to answer -- and answer definitively. 

Still, the past few weeks have undoubtedly been encouraging. Every day, it seems, Iran has made another move that appears to signal its willingness to end the stalemate over the country's nuclear program and roll back the sanctions that have had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy. Here are 20 signs (and one caveat) that this time around the mullahs really are serious about rapprochement and reform.

1.  Iranian President Hasan Rouhani pledges that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.

2.  Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorses diplomacy with the West, saying it is time for his country to adopt a posture of "heroic leniency."

3.  Rouhani takes to the Washington Post to urge his "counterparts to seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election" and to announce that his government is ready "to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition."

4.  French President François Hollande announces that he will meet with Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

5.  Iran frees 11 prominent political prisoners, including the human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.

6.  Rouhani and President Obama exchange a series of letters that the Iranian leader says "could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future."

7.  Rouhani gives his widely respected foreign minister, Javad Zarif, responsibility for handling the country's nuclear negotiations.

8.  Shortly after winning control of the nuclear portfolio, Zarif opens a Twitter account and uses it to wish Jews a happy new year; in a Twitter exchange with Nancy Pelosi's daughter, he emphasizes that the man most responsible for Iran's history of Holocaust denial is now out of office.

9.  Rouhani also tweets a Rosh Hashanah greeting to the world's Jews, wishing them a "blessed" new year. (The only Jewish member of the Iranian parliament is also accompanying Rouhani to the U.N. General Assembly.)

10.  The Iranian government eases the terms of the house arrest imposed on two opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decides that their cases will be taken up by the country's supreme national security council.

11.  Rouhani signals he may be open to easing restrictions on the Internet, saying that "in the age of digital revolution, one cannot live or govern in a quarantine."

12.  Iranian Internet users are briefly able to access Twitter and Facebook without having to bypass the government firewall, though the services are quickly restricted a day later as authorities claim the development was the result of a technical glitch.

13.  Rouhani says he would like to reduce tensions between the United States and Iran, calling the strained relationship "an old wound, which must be healed."

14.  Rouhani calls for negotiations to end the impasse over his country's nuclear program, but emphasizes that the United States must take the first step.

15.  Rouhani appoints a cabinet dominated by moderates, many of whom served under a moderate former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani.  

16.  Rouhani condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria and in a tweet urges the "international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in #Syria," though he later emphasizes that the Middle East "doesn't need another war" and that any action in Syria "should be based on intl law, lead to more stability in region & reduce terrorism."

17.  In a speech to Revolutionary Guard commanders, Rouhani claims that Iran will support whomever the Syrian people choose as their leader, even if that person is not the country's staunch ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

18.  Rouhani calls for a less intrusive state and more freedoms for Iranians, arguing that "a powerful and capable government does not mean a government which meddles in and is in control of all affairs, restricts people and their lives, and meddles in people's private lives."

19.  Iran frees six of eight Slovaks who had been arrested while paragliding in Iran and accused of spying.

20.  The sultan of Oman becomes the first foreign leader to visit Iran since Rouhani took power, sparking speculation in the Iranian media that he may mediate talks between Iran and the West on the country's nuclear program. (Subsequent reports suggest the sultan has indeed ferried letters between Obama and Rouhani.)

The Caveat

The question that remains is whether these moves signal a fundamental change in Tehran's strategic thinking -- or whether they are part of a ploy to ease international sanctions while the country's nuclear program steams ahead. It's worth keeping in mind that Rouhani knows a thing or two about hoodwinking the West. In a speech delivered some time between October and November of 2004, Rouhani explained how Iran had been able to engage with the West while at the same time making progress on its nuclear program.

"While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan.... in fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan. Today, we can convert yellowcake into UF4 and UF6, and this is a very important matter," Rouhani observed, referring to two key materials in the nuclear enrichment process. Moreover, Rouhani explained that once Iran attains a nuclear weapon, the West will have no choice but to accept the country as a nuclear power. "If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice -- that we do possess the technology -- then the situation will be different," he said. "The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold." Today, Iran is further along in that process than it was in 2004.

While a nine-year-old speech by no means puts the lie to Iran's recent actions, Rouhani's comments serve as exhibit A for why Western diplomats are approaching the latest developments with supreme caution.




Meet the Jihadi Group That's Declared War on Syria's Moderate Rebels

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Just a few months ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) didn't officially exist. Now, the al Qaeda affiliate known colloquially as al-Dawla -- simply "the state" -- has emerged as a clear and present danger to Syria's mainstream armed opposition.

The jihadist organization seized the northern Syrian town of Azaz on Thursday, driving out Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated rebel groups. The clashes were reportedly sparked after ISIS fighters grew suspicious of German doctors working at a field hospital in the area, and the FSA brigades protected the physicians from potential retribution. The town is now reportedly quiet, as mediators attempt to negotiate a ceasefire deal that would see ISIS withdraw from its positions. For the moment, however, ISIS's presence in Azaz gives al Qaeda a presence on the border with Turkey, a NATO ally. However the conflict plays out, it will represent the most serious confrontation yet between jihadists and non-Islamist rebels fighting the Syrian regime.

Some of the FSA's advocates in Washington, however, see a silver lining to the rebel infighting. The United States has hesitated to provide military aid to Syria's armed opposition out of fear that such assistance could find its way into the hands of extremist groups -- a possibility that would presumably be eliminated if the FSA and jihadi groups are in open conflict.

"At least in terms of further lethal support from the West, this otherwise threatening development is somewhat healthy for the moderate opposition, as there is now much less risk of weapons falling into the wrong hands," Dan Layman, the media director for the Syrian Support Group, a U.S. organization licensed to provide aid to the FSA, told FP. "After all, FSA units aren't going to share their guns and ammunition with the people they're now fighting directly against."

ISIS was created in April, as the latest in a long line of rebranding efforts by al Qaeda in Iraq. Its chief, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, initially hoped that the effort would allow him to subsume the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra -- but Jabhat al-Nusra chief Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani rebuffed any subjugation to Baghdadi, pledging allegiance only to al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Nevertheless, over the following months, ISIS's influence grew substantially in eastern Syria as some Jabhat al-Nusra fighters joined the organization.

U.S. officials estimate that ISIS currently boasts 7,000 to 10,000 fighters, and they have played a key role in several opposition victories in northern Syria. The group's suicide bombers conducted a devastating attack that allowed rebels to capture the Mennagh Air Base in Aleppo last month, and their fighters have demonstrated particular expertise in using roadside bombs against Assad's forces -- a skill they likely learned fighting the U.S. military in Iraq.

Ironically, it was the Assad regime itself that initially allowed jihadists to establish a foothold along the Syrian-Iraqi border. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Syrian regime turned a blind eye to fighters going east to combat the American military presence. Documents seized from an al Qaeda safe house in an Iraqi town only 10 miles from the Syrian border showed that hundreds of foreign fighters crossed into Iraq from Syria between September 2006 and September 2007. Now, the same networks that allowed jihadists and weapons to flow from Syria to Iraq have been reversed, as al Qaeda turns its attention to what it views as an apostate regime in Damascus.

Al Qaeda's operatives in Syria have been mindful of their mistakes in Iraq, where the local Sunni population eventually turned against them due to their brutal and indiscriminate tactics. ISIS attempted a "charm offensive" in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa, providing free medical services, food, and cheap fuel to residents in some areas. It has even hosted public fairs, where boys competed in ice cream and pie-eating contests, jihadist fighters engaged in a friendly game of tug-of-war, and Syrians received pamphlets touting the organization.

All the ice cream-eating contests in Syria, however, don't seem to have been enough to stave off ISIS's showdown with more moderate rebel brigades. Tensions have been building for months, as the jihadi group has kidnapped aid workers, executed civilians for perceived offenses against Islam, and occasionally killed FSA-affiliated commanders in battles over turf. Now that the fight has spiraled out of control, it's hard to see how the rival rebel groups will be able to patch up their differences.

"They are not rebels anymore; from this point, they are terrorists now," FSA spokesman Louay Mekdad told CNN. "We are fighting two terrorist teams on two fronts: One al-Assad regime and Hezbollah militia and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and the other the extremists al Qaeda, ISIS."

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images