The Cable

Iran's Charm Offensive Has Diplomats Asking Themselves: Is It Real?

Iran, the perennial bad boy of the international community, has suddenly become the diplomatic darling at this year's U.N. General Assembly session, mounting a charm offensive that has many U.N. diplomats asking themselves: Can this be real?

In anticipation of President Hasan Rouhani's diplomatic debut before the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, Iran's American-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has been working the U.N. corridors, telling anyone who will listen that Iran has changed its stripes and that its nuclear ambitions do not extend beyond its desire to generate more electricity.

"I have been a multilateralist all my life; Iran wants to engage with the world," Zarif told a gathering of more than 100 diplomats at a private luncheon at the U.N. delegates' dining room, according to a diplomat who was in the room. A former Iranian envoy to the United Nations, Zarif insisted that Iran is ready to deal: "We will move ahead and resolve the [nuclear] problem, not just for the sake of negotiation, not just for the sake of talking."

The Iranian charm offensive contrasted starkly with Iran's previous appearances at the United Nations. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's former president, took a certain pleasure in pushing Washington's buttons, lambasting Israel and raising doubts about the veracity of American claims that al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks. The change of tone from the Ahmadinejad era appears to be having an effect. "The diplomatic initiative of Iran has certainly had an impact," said Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador. "People are keen to see diplomatic solutions and therefore [are] open to listening."

The White House is clearly enticed by the Iranian overtures. The Iranian diplomat has been invited to participate in a meeting of big-power ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on Iran's nuclear program. "We welcome Iran engaging seriously," said Ben Rhodes, a top national security advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama, who added that the White House wouldn't rule out the possibility of a meeting between the two leaders. "As you heard us say repeatedly, we are open to engagement with the Iranian government at a variety of levels provided that they will follow through on their commitments to address the international community's concerns over their nuclear program," he said.

European Union high representative Catherine Ashton, who is chairing the meeting on Iran's nuclear program and who had her first face-to-face meeting with Zarif on Monday, told reporters at U.N. headquarters that the Iranian diplomat would have a "short discussion" with his big-power counterparts later this week. "This is the first meeting in order to establish how we would work together," she said. "We had a good and constructive discussion." Ashton and her team will conduct more detailed discussions with Zarif and his advisors in Geneva next month.

Ashton said that her discussion with Zarif focused primarily on Iran's plan to resume talks on its nuclear program. She said they did not discuss any steps Iran is willing to take to assure the outside world that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon. "We didn't talk about the details of what we should do. The purpose of this meeting was to establish how we would go forward," she said. "In terms of whether we are on the verge of a breakthrough, I would put it like this: I was struck by the energy and the determination that the foreign minister demonstrated to me."

But not everyone was swayed by the Iranian diplomatic gambit. Gary Samore, an expert on nuclear weapons proliferation at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said that while he supports U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran, he warns that people shouldn't get their hopes up too high. "Nobody is fooled by the charm offense; everybody understands the supreme leader is seeking nuclear weapons," he said. "No matter how many times Rouhani smiles doesn't change the basic objective of the program."

Samore said that Iran has been forced into reopening nuclear negotiations in a bid to seek relief from crippling U.S., European, and U.N. sanctions. But he is skeptical that Iran will be prepared to pay the price to secure serious relief from sanctions. "The price tag is going to be very steep; they will need to accept physical limits on their enrichment capacity and stockpiling," he said. "I haven't seen any indication that they are willing to sacrifice that part of the program, which has taken 10 years to build up."

The Iranian nuclear issue has gone through a series of wild ups and downs since 2002, when satellite pictures captured two clandestine nuclear sites in Arak and Natanz, raising suspicions that Iran was pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program. In 2005, after the election of Ahmadinejad, Iran launched a large-scale uranium-enrichment program.

The Iranian government has denied it is pursuing nuclear weapons, saying that it needs to enrich uranium to expand the country's energy producing capacity. Successive efforts to strike a bargain that would place Iran's nuclear program under greater scrutiny in exchange for an easing of international sanctions and supplying Tehran with trade and energy concessions have foundered.

Still, the prospect of a thaw in relations between the United States and Iran prompted calls from key Democratic and Republican leaders to maintain economic sanctions on Iran until it proves it is prepared to take verifiable steps to ensure the world that it is not pursing nuclear weapons.

"We respectfully urge that any diplomatic outreach to Iran re-emphasizes that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and that any relief from crippling economic sanctions on Iran will only be provided if Iran takes meaningful and verifiable actions to halt its nuclear activities," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote in a letter to Obama.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned that Iran has previously used "negotiations as a subterfuge for progress on its clandestine nuclear program"

"Iran is not a friend whose word can be taken as a promise," they wrote. "The test of Iranian seriousness must be verifiable action by Iran to terminate its nuclear weapons program."

JASON DECROW-POOL/Getty Images

The Cable

Iran's New President Has a Fan Club in U.S. Intelligence Vets

Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, is on a charm offensive in advance of his visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly next week. Most recently in an op-ed published Friday in the Washington Post, he has signaled his willingness to enter new negotiations with the United States over Iran's nuclear program. And that comes as little surprise to former U.S. intelligence and national security officials, who see Rouhani as a known quantity, and someone the Americans can do business with.

Rouhani was one of the so-called "Iranian moderates" who, in May 1986, met secretly in Tehran with officials from President Reagan's National Security Council staff. The meeting was arranged largely in the hopes of enlisting the Iranians' support in winning the release of American hostages. But Reagan and his advisers also sought to improve U.S.-Iran relations generally by forging ties to pragmatists in the Iranian regime. They thought Rouhani, then a senior defense official, was one of them.

"He said many things at the time that showed he wanted to deal with us. And we could deal with them," Howard Teicher, then a senior NSC staffer who was part of the delegation that met with Rouhani, told Foreign Policy.

It was not to be. The secret meeting was also a pivotal moment in what would soon become known to the world as the Iran-Contra affair, the covert operation that embroiled the Reagan White House in scandal and ended with the resignation of several top officials. But, says Teicher, officials were hopeful at the time for a new opening that might undermine the influence of Iran's hardline leaders.

"I left my meetings with Rouhani believing there were clearly people in the revolutionary government that saw the world and its interests in ways that were rational," Teicher said. That Rouhani is now reaching out to the Obama administration is "incredibly encouraging," he added. "He's back and he's promoting the same [initiative]. ...To not engage him very seriously, to me, would be the height of folly."

Other former intelligence officials shared the view that Rouhani is still the moderate he was in the mid-80s. "This is a pragmatic person. I don't think he has changed his stripes at all," said Paul Pillar, who served as the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and Southeast Asia. "He's coming at these issues with the same attitude he has all along."

Former officials describe Rouhani as willing to forge ties with the United States at great political and personal risk. Teicher noted that Rouhani used an assumed name when he met with U.S. officials in 1986 for fear he'd be discovered by senior government officials. "Many times we thought he would end up losing his head," said Teicher, who described Rouhani as "the least bloodthirsty" of Iran's leaders.

But former officials and experts cautioned skepticism about whether Rouhani could make good on a new deal on nuclear weapons. And, they noted, before Iran is likely to make a substantial shift in its policies, it would need to see some relief from crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations over the country's nuclear program.

"I think [Rouhani] has a reputation as a moderate. But they're really hurting with sanctions," said Amb. Joseph DeTrani, who served as the CIA's Director for East Asia and was the State Department's special envoy for the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. DeTrani, like other former officials, said Iran's struggling economy is forcing Rouhani's hand as much as any predisposition he has towards pragmatism.

"We will only be able to declare a true turning point when we see what happens at the negotiating table, as opposed to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post," said Greg Thielmann, who served as an office director in the State Department's intelligence bureau. "My own assessment, however, is that Rouhani's campaign rhetoric was indicative of a fundamentally different approach to foreign policy than his predecessor. ... There is mounting evidence that the stars are aligning for a more productive discussion with the United States over, not just Iran's nuclear program, but issues like Syria as well."

Theilman said he was particularly encouraged by comments from Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that suggest the new president has the backing of the country's most powerful figure.

To the extent that Rouhani's election and his most recent statements are being greeted as a moment of opportunity, the Obama administration has a chance to reboot the U.S.-Iran relationship. White House national security official Ben Rhodes said Friday that there's no meeting "currently planned" between the two presidents. But former officials predicted a "chance" encounter in the halls outside the General Assembly next week, and said it would be a welcome step.

"The new Iranian administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened," Pillar wrote Friday in a column for The National Interest. "The United States would be foolish not to walk through it."