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Iran's Rouhani Wants Nuclear Deal Without Conflict In 'New Era'

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You need not possess a doctorate in diplomacy to summon skepticism for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's rhetorical peace campaign.

Whatever his arrival on the world stage represents, whatever his genuine personal inclinations, he operates within an autocratic system ruled by an insular clique that justifies mass human rights abuses in the name of religious dogma. His words have been constructive, but his power to turn those words into action depends upon the assent of leaders who have for decades disdained much of the world community, maintaining Iran as a pariah state while depriving its people of freedom and prosperity.

And yet to sit in a room with Rouhani, as I got to do on Thursday night in New York, is to contemplate the prospect that a real opportunity is at hand to defuse one of the globe's most menacing threats.

Skepticism remains required, but only a cynic could listen to this freshly elected Iranian president describe the historical conditions that have produced such a moment and fail to recognize the potential for more peaceful dealings between Iran and its adversaries. Only someone inured to entrenched geopolitical dangers could dismiss this opportunity for a possible way out of the stalemate over Iran's nuclear preparations.

"I ran on a platform of moderation and won the election by a large margin," Rouhani said, reprising a theme that he has emphasized throughout his appearances this week at the United Nations. "By virtue of the large mandate I received from the electorate, I am committed to operating in the framework of moderation."

Less than an hour later, Rouhani's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, arrived to report on the meeting he had just concluded with his American counterpart, John Kerry -- the first step in talks aimed at defusing tensions over Iran's nuclear intentions.

"We had a very good and substantive meeting," Zarif declared. "I'm optimistic."

Those closely tracking Rouhani's voluble pursuit of better relations with the United States and Europe heard little new in the Thursday night event convened by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society at a midtown Manhattan hotel. He repeated promises that Iran has no designs on building nuclear weapons, calling its nuclear program "peaceful." He endorsed continued talks with the Obama administration and European leaders toward striking a nuclear deal that avoids conflict.

Yet the mere existence of the gathering was extraordinary, the spectacle of a president and religious cleric from Iran drawing spirited applause from a grey-suited assemblage of some 300 members of the American elite. It felt a little like consolation for the handshake that never materialized with President Barack Obama.

Rouhani catered to this sense of historic import, casting his mandate as part of a global trend.

"A new era has been created around the world, as it has inside Iran," he said. "The exciting elections that took place and the vote of the people in Iran for moderation and wisdom and hope and prudence has led to the creation of a new atmosphere for engagement and interaction with the entire world."

Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, famously relished combative exchanges with Western audiences, most notably in denying the existence of the Holocaust. Rouhani this week forged fresh controversy on this sensitive ground as he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that it was up to historians to measure the "dimensions of the Holocaust." Some construed this formulation as a more subtle form of Holocaust denial, noting that it left open the possibility that Holocaust accounts have been exaggerated. Others focused on Rouhani's condemnation of "the crime that the Nazis committed toward the Jews" as a refreshing break from Iran's recent past.

However one parses his words, Rouhani clearly represents a new Iranian motive: He aims to win international favor. As he sat on stage Thursday, calmly resting his hands on his lap in stark contrast to his predecessor's agitated mien, his occasional bemused grin seemed to convey that he was enjoying himself.

He portrayed the pursuit of a nuclear deal as an enterprise favored by all thoughtful people, while casting those opposed as a crass lot intent on monkey-wrenching the global interest in the advance of their own.

"As leaders we need to rise above petty politics and lead rather than follow the various interests and pressure groups in our respective countries," Rouhani said. "We need to counter those interest groups here in the U.S. and there in the region whose objective is to keep Iran as an issue that is a boiling one. They seek to further their goal of distracting international attention from issues directly involving themselves."

He did not name these special interests, but he did not have to.

He was talking about Israel and its prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, who has dismissed Rouhani as a wolf in sheep's clothing, intoning that any negotiation with Iran invites peril.

He was referring to Israel's inveterate friends in Washington -- congressional Republicans who see Obama's launching of talks with Iran as another opportunity to portray him as weak and naïve.

He was talking about another key American ally, Saudi Arabia, whose Sunni Muslim monarchy reliably opposed anything that may boost the stature of the Shiites who preside in Iran.

Each of these special interests has a credible story to tell in warning that Rouhani's charm offensive may not be sincere. Absent demonstrable action that rolls back the threat that Iran could become armed with nuclear weapons, Rouhani's words must be scrutinized as a ruse designed to loosen economic sanctions while driving a wedge between Israel and the United States.

While the headlines generated by Rouhani's speeches this week have properly focused on his call for dialogue with the U.S. and Europe, he has invariably emphasized that Iran claims a right to pursue nuclear capability, harnessing the technology for energy while stopping short of making weapons. But many experts doubt this claim in light of Iran's actions.

Yet even as grounds for caution are abundant, so are reasons for cautious optimism. It seems entirely plausible that the people running Iran have concluded that international pariah status is not a jumping-off point for better days.

Isolation and the bite of economic sanctions have left Iran struggling to provide for basic needs. The country is full of educated young people who cannot get jobs, and who are increasingly engaged with the rest of the planet via television and the Web, meaning they know what they do not have. This is a prescription for the sort of ferment that can bring down unrepresentative leaders.

When the present is uncomfortable and the future shows no sign of relief, change becomes not only rational, but imperative. Rouhani's goals may simply be an outgrowth of this collective realization, with Iran's Revolutionary Guard coming around to this view.

Or maybe not. We just don't know. We cannot know until we see how the process plays out. But not knowing is no justification for a failure to engage.

This is an extraordinary opportunity that must be seized if for no other reason than this: the status quo is unacceptable. The continued risk of military confrontation in a part of the world that is oft-described as a powder keg demands a serious go of the process underway.

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