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Optimism Surrounds Iranian President's Visit To New York


Iran's new president addresses the United Nations in New York tomorrow. The speech comes amid near daily signals that Tehran is eager to engage with the West and resolve some long-standing issues. Under moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani, Iran has released political prisoners, launched a new push to resolve questions about its nuclear program and offered to help mediate the conflict in Syria.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has more on this new Iranian image and the hope and skepticism it's stirring.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: After years of hostility and mockery from ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Rouhani's relentless charm offensive seemed to take some getting used to. On his website, Rouhani says, unfortunately in recent years, the face of Iran, a great and civilized nation, has been presented in another way. And he intends to correct that.

The most noted changes are related to the nuclear question. Iran's negotiating team is no longer under the aegis of the hard-line National Security Council. That responsibility now belongs to the foreign ministry led by a Rouhani-appointed moderate, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Rouhani even anticipated one likely objection to his moves, that only Iran's supreme leader can make key nuclear decisions. Rouhani told NBC News that unlike his predecessor, he does have the power to cut a nuclear deal.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through translator) In its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority. The problem won't be from our side. We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem.

KENYON: Many Iranians began to believe Rouhani after Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a speech that turned heads in Iran. He was addressing the Revolutionary Guards, a bastion of hard-line anti-Western sentiment.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI: (Through translator)

KENYON: Khamenei told the guards, I still believe in what was named heroic flexibility many years ago. There's nothing wrong with it. It's absolutely necessary, provided it meets a fundamental condition. He added that the fundamental condition is, quote, "understanding the nature of the opponents and their goals."

Wadi Izhadim(ph) at Tehran University told Al Jazeera's English channel that inside Iran Khamenei's speech is being taken very seriously.

WADI IZHADIM: This is a public permission. This is why it's significant. It's a public permission that Rouhani has full authority to reach a compromise.

KENYON: Izhadim says Western leaders need to stop seeing Iranian politics as a monolith of hard-liners. He says, yes, there is still a strong faction in Iran that believes nothing will satisfy Washington but the death of Iran's Islamic revolution.

IZHADIM: So Rouhani does not belong to that camp. The political party that he belongs to thinks that he can get these sanctions removed from Iran if they just do a better job diplomatically.

KENYON: Here is where analysts see Rouhani as vulnerable. He promised economic improvements during the campaign, and they will be hard to deliver unless Western sanctions are eased.

Israel, which has, for years, predicted that Iran is on the verge of building a nuclear weapon, is warning the West not to be fooled by the charm offensive. One Israeli official says Tehran could have a bomb within six months if left unchecked. Even those eager to see a diplomatic push, however, say President Obama's caution is warranted.

Besides saying Iran will never build a nuclear bomb, Rouhani also says Iran has never tried to build a nuclear weapon in the past. And yet, Tehran has repeatedly blocked U.N. inspectors from at least one site where atomic weapons-related research may have taken place. Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says, so far, Rouhani has brought better mood music to the nuclear issue, but a swift breakthrough with the six world powers known as the P5 Plus One seems hard to imagine unless Tehran and Washington engage directly.

MARK FITZPATRICK: Maybe something will happen in New York. Maybe, you know, in fact, better than the formal talks with the P5 Plus One, which are set pieces and really hard to strike any deals, it'll be far better for the United States and Iran to sit down quietly in a room somewhere - and New York would be a good place to do it - and just talk through the issues and see what the room is for compromises.

KENYON: Iran's conservatives, however, appear to be just as upset by Rouhani's outreach as Israeli for their own reasons. Hard-line media outlets feature pieces saying there's nothing heroic, flexible or wise about Rouhani's policies, suggesting that Iran's new president must walk a fine line as he tries to present what he calls Iran's true face.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.