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US watches Iran's president-elect for moderation ahead of nuclear 'breakout'

Behrouz Mehri / AFP - Getty Images

Hassan Rowhani attends his first press conference as Iran's president-elect, on June 17 in Tehran.


With a possible Iranian nuclear breakthrough looming despite sanctions and covert action by the West, U.S. officials are hoping a more moderate incoming president will offer a unique opportunity for an accord on the issue.

Hassan Rouhani will be inaugurated Sunday, ending the contentious eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. U.S. officials are already watching as he assembles his foreign policy team, hoping to get an idea on what direction nuclear policy will take.

The concerns are heightened by a study released this week by the respected Institute for Science and International Security, saying that by mid-2014, Iran is expected to have the technical ability to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear explosive.

On Monday, the president-elect nominated a well-known moderate, Javad Zarif, as his foreign minister. Zarif, who has degrees from San Francisco State and the University of Denver, served as Iran’s United Nations ambassador 2002-2007 and as the country's nuclear negotiator. Equally important, he often served as a back channel for U.S. and Iranian officials to communicate. He was fired by Ahmadinejad and returned to Iran, where he was sidelined by Ahmadinejad's Foreign Ministry. Now, he is back.

Hossein Mousavian, Iran's former ambassador to Germany and a visiting scholar at Princeton University, suggests that pragmatism is likely to drive Rouhani's nuclear policies.

"Rouhani is neither wolf nor sheep," Mousavian wrote last week in an op-ed on the multilingual news site al Monitor. "He is a pragmatic politician who has already proved his sincerity to realize a peaceful, sustainable and realistic solution to the nuclear dilemma. The US should not miss or dismiss this unique opportunity. President Obama should be brave and invest political capital to pursue a direct and broad deal with Iran and end over three decades of hostilities."

Mousavian and other Iranian officials close to Rouhani believe that U.S.-Iranian relations are crucial to Rouhani's success, that he will have to improve those relations if he hopes to get international sanctions either removed or lightened. (Still, even without sanctions, deep-seated structural problems will remain in the economy.)

The U.S. has been encouraged by a number of Rouhani moves, say officials, starting with his press conference the morning after he was elected. Another U.S.-educated senior aide, Amir Hossein Zamaninia (Chico State, CUNY) ran the press conference and deliberately called on NBC News' Tehran bureau chief, Ali Arouzi, knowing he would ask about Iran's relations with the West and the U.S. "Iran and America's relationship was like a wound that has not healed; we must not look back but forward," Rouhani responded.

When NBC's Ali Arouzi asked Iran's new president, Hassan Rowhani, if he would be willing to engage in a direct dialogue with the United States, he laughed and said the answer was complicated.  

But the U.S. is looking beyond personnel moves and positive impressions, for things like who will be in charge of nuclear negotiations, Iran’s National Security Council or the Foreign Ministry. The NSC reports to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, while the Foreign Ministry reports to the president. If negotiations move into the ministry, it would signal a turn away from the hardline positions taken under Khamenei. Moreover, the U.S. and Iran remain divided on the key issue of uranium enrichment. The U.S. wants a halt. Iran says it's within its rights to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That stalemate is unlikely to be resolved easily. 

U.S. officials think that Rouhani may benefit from the change from what one called the “toxicity” of the Ahmadenijad regime, that the West will likely want to bolster him against the hardliners in Tehran, help him get the maneuvering room he will need to make concessions that might narrow the gap between Iran and the West. That will lessen the threat of war, but Western leaders won’t be patient forever.

Steve Simon, who ran the Middle East Desk at the National Security Council until earlier this year, says there is a downside to postponing a resolution: “If the Rouhani honeymoon ends without some sort of workable compromise, tension is likely to ratchet up fairly quickly, especially against the background of Iranian involvement in Syria, and resurgent Israeli concerns about a nuclear breakout scenario."

Rouhani, the day after his election, pledged "greater transparency" and "active negotiations" but said there would be no new moratorium on uranium enrichment. “This period is over.”

Still, Francois Nicoullaud,  France’s ambassador to Iran from 2001 to 2005, said in an interview published this week that he believed Rouhani was the "main actor" in persuading Khamenei to halt Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program in 2003.

There's also the issue of how far and how fast Rouhani can move if indeed he wants to. Khamenei still holds the keys to the direction of the nuclear program. Indeed, the U.S. believes Rouhani will have to pick his battles carefully. Hooman Majd, an author and Iranian expert who consults with NBC News, notes, "Radical hardliners do not want improved relations."  So, although Rouhani seems to have staked his early political capital on improving the tone — and possibly the substance — of relations with the West, he has limited space to do this now. As a result, anything beyond a gradual shift is unlikely at this early stage.

That could be a problem because of heightened concern over the country's progress in enriching uranium. The Institute for Science and International Security reported Tuesday that "Iran is expected to achieve a critical capability in mid-2014, which is defined as the technical capability to produce sufficient weapon-grade uranium from its safeguarded stocks of low enriched uranium for a nuclear explosive, without being detected." In other words, a breakout. Moreover, ISIS warns, "Breakout times at critical capability would be so short that there simply would not be enough time to organize an international diplomatic or military response." That in turn could be used to justify a pre-emptive strike.

Iran denies it is developing nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.  

But already, hardliners in the West have seized on the report to justify more sanctions. In fact, the House on Wednesday passed a new round of U.S. sanctions by a 400-20 vote. The legislation aims at cutting Iranian oil exports even more, providing heavy penalties for international buyers who do not find alternative supplies.  A similar bill will be introduced in the Senate next month, but it’s uncertain whether President Barack Obama would sign it if it passed.

Iran's Presidency Office / EPA file

A photo released by the office of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shows him inspecting the Natanz nuclear plant in central Iran on March 8, 2007.

New sanctions would be a mistake, says David Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University.

"Now is not the time to undermine dialogue with sanctions and other punitive measures. The appointment of Zarif is a signal in itself of Iran's desire seek rapproachment," says Phillips, who has known Zarif for more than a decade. "Now is the time for senior Obama administration officials to engage directly with Iran. Iran should be judged by what it does, not what it says. We must establish clear benchmarks to measure Iran's new approach and designate a senior person to work with Iran officials, especially Zarif, who has a history of constructive communication with the West."

The next move will come Sunday, when Rouhani speaks at his inauguration. In places like the State Department, CIA and White House, U.S. officials will be poring over what he says about U.S. relations and the nuclear program.

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