Can Iran's President Rouhani deliver on his 'charm offensive'?

An exchange of letters between President Rouhani and President Obama has raised hopes that Iran and the US can move toward a deal over Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Rouzbeh Jadidoleslam/Presidency Office/AP
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks during an interview with state television at the presidency in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 10, 2013.

After more than six decades of strife, a senior adviser to Iran's leadership has signaled the country's openness to a profound and historic strategic change in Iran's relations with the West.

A brief letter from US President Obama offering potential relief from international sanctions in return for a swift agreement regarding Iran's controversial nuclear program has been reportedly answered by an equally brief and amicable note from Iran's moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani. A New York Times story about the exchange of notes:

The 1 1/2-page letter, which the Iranian president answered with a letter of similar length, has kindled hopes that the international charm offensive Iran began after Rouhani's election in June may produce a diplomatic breakthrough. But the differing interpretations of Obama’s letter in Tehran and Washington are a reminder of the political hurdles and the legacy of mistrust that both sides will have to overcome in negotiating a deal.

Details on both letters are scarce, as are what sort of concessions Iran would need to make in order to find fast relief from economically stifling international sanctions that have contributed to the painful inflation, shortages, and unemployment that rank among the country's most serious domestic issues. As outlined on the US Treasury Department website, US sanctions on Iran include an import embargo that dates back to US President Ronald Reagan, an order signed by President Bill Clinton prohibiting US involvement in oil development in Iran, and a 2008 ban on "U-turn" bank transfers that originate and end with non-Iranian foreign banks but involve Iran.

Efforts to broker a deal on Iran's nuclear program have long remained elusive. But the newly elected Iranian President Rouhani has matched his reputed private interest in reaching some kind of settlement with public statements: He told NBC two days ago that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons, and that he has sufficient political clout to reach a deal with the West on Iran's program, saying: "We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem."

"From my point of view, the tone of the letter was positive and constructive," Rouhani said of the note he got from the White House congratulating him on his June election, in which he defeated five hard-liners.

"It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future. I believe the leaders in all countries could think in their national interest and they should not be under the influence of pressure groups. I hope to witness such an atmosphere in the future."

The nature of Iran's nuclear program makes developments with Rouhani significant: Led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran has sunk years of money and political capital into the idea of becoming a nuclear power, much to the irritation of the US, Israel, and Europe. A persistent campaign of sabotage and assassination has been waged by Western powers (and Israel) against the program, making the clandestine fight to slow Iran's potential acquisition of nuclear weapons capability one of the world's most gripping ongoing dramas of covert operations and public rhetorical warfare. A Daily Telegraph story detailing Iran's efforts to boost its nuclear capacity and Western efforts to derail those efforts notes:

Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, disclosed last year that his service played a key role and, but for those efforts, Iran might have achieved nuclear weapons capability as early as 2008.

The CIA began its own sabotage operation codenamed “Olympic Games.” Perhaps the most effective blow was struck in 2010 when the Stuxnet computer virus was infiltrated into Natanz, causing hundreds of centrifuges to spin out of control and explode.

Although the flare-up of hostility relating to Iran's nuclear program defines American relations with the country's current government, tensions between Iran and the West date back many years, climaxing in the early 1950s with the joint US-British engineering of a coup against democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Moassadeq. Mr. Mossadeq's ouster and replacement with Mohammad Reza-Shah Pahlavi touched off a complicated series of events that culminated in 1979 with the Iranian revolution that put power into the hands of anti-Western religious hardliners led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The news about Iran comes as its ally Syria has indicated willingness to turn over its stock of chemical weapons in return for a cancellation of threatened US air and/or missile strikes against the besieged regime of its current president, Bashar al-Assad. But that deal is far from certain – Russia's role as a diplomatic intermediary has been problematic, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported.

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