Two great signs and a dubious one from Iranian President Rouhani’s first Western interview

September 18, 2013

One and a half months into his tenure, and just one week before he  addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sat down with NBC News on Wednesday. It was his first interview with the Western media since taking office, and it appears to be the latest move in his not-so-subtle campaign signaling to the United States that he's interested in ending decades of enmity.

A snip of the interview is above; you can read NBC's write-up here.

Here are three important take-aways from the parts of the interview that NBC has made available. The first two are great, positive signs that Rouhani and President Obama could find their way to a peace deal. The third is a bit more complicated.

1. He's got the supreme leader's okay to cut a nuclear deal.

As Rouhani-skeptics often point out, the president is not the final authority in Iranian politics. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ultimately in charge, especially on matters of national security and foreign policy. The best case for skepticism about Rouhani's peace overtures is that he's just freelancing and will inevitably be undercut by Khamenei. That's still possible, but Rouhani told NBC News that Khamenei gave him full authority to cut a deal with the West over Iran's nuclear program -- the single biggest sticking point of any negotiations. If true, then for Khamenei to hand Rouhani that power would be a remarkably positive step just in itself, a sign of institutional weight shifting toward compromise and diplomacy. That Rouhani could actually see it through is even better.

As The Washington Post's Jason Rezaian reported earlier this week, Khamenei has issued several statements publicly embracing diplomacy over militancy -- a remarkable shift given his years of hard-line anti-Western rhetoric and action.

2. He's pen pals with Obama.

A few days ago, Obama revealed that he had written to Rouhani after his election. Obama had also tried this with Khamenei a few years earlier but was rebuffed. Right about the same time as Rouhani's interview today, the White House revealed the gist of the president's letter: that the United States was ready to make a peace deal over the nuclear program and that it would tolerate a peaceful nuclear program.

Rouhani didn't say much when asked about the letter, but his tone was positive and he did reveal that he wrote back to Obama. "The tone of [Obama's] letter was positive and constructive," he said, calling their exchanges "subtle and tiny steps for a very important future." That's an analytically sound view of the letters, and one that implies both that action speaks louder than words and that Rouhani hopes for a lot more. More good news.

3. He denied that Iran will ever build a nuclear weapon.

This is the one point that's gotten a lot of positive attention but about which I'm a touch less sanguine. Rouhani said that Iran will "never under any circumstances develop a nuclear weapon."

As Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress Progress points out on Twitter, "Iran regime has always denied it sought nuclear weapons, so Rohani's comments don't represent a concession. Still hugely positive, though." This is, in other words, status quo.

It also strains credulity a bit. Western intelligence agencies tend to believe that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon. But there are lots of signs that it is at least trying to give itself that option -- vast, clandestine nuclear-enrichment operations buried deep underground don't inspire the deepest confidences. Neither do recent reports, even since Rouhani's inauguration, that Iran is upgrading its enrichment facilities. So for Rouhani to state that Iran would full-stop never-ever develop a nuclear weapon is tough to square with the many indications that the country probably wants break-out nuclear capability.

As I've written previously, some Rouhani skeptics believe that his peace outreaches are all a great ruse to hold the West at bay and give Iran more time to develop its nuclear program. That's not the prevailing view, but Rouhani is giving the skeptics a bit of a boost here.

To be fair, "we will never build a nuclear weapon" has been Tehran's stated position for so long that Rouhani is not really in a position to contradict it. Still, if I were to imagine the most promising possible thing that he could have said, it might include at least some subtle nod to, for example, Iran's long-standing fear of Western attacks or its desire to defend itself. The possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon is, after all, the central issue of U.S.-Iran enmity. Acknowledging that is an important first step to resolving it -- and to finding the peace that Rouhani seems to so badly want.

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Max Fisher · September 18, 2013