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Iran's Nuclear Defiance: Rouhani's Two-Track Nuclear Policy or Hypocrisy?

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After taking the oath of office on Sunday, the Islamic Republic of Iran's new centrist president, Hassan Rouhani (who achieved a landslide victory in the June 2013 presidential elections) held his first news conference since his inauguration. During the conference, President Rouhani addressed Iran's controversial and a decades-long nuclear program which has been a substantial concern for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international community, the United States, and its allies. These concerns are primarily aimed at some of the Tehran's recently revealed clandestine nuclear programs, as well as at Iran's defiance and violation of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions requesting a halt to Iran's enrichment of uranium.

The new president's remarks at the news conference sparked various reactions from regional and international state actors. He pointed out, "We are ready -- seriously and without wasting time -- to engage in serious and substantive talks with the other sides. I am certain the concerns of the two sides would be removed through talks in a short period of time." He has selected a special cabinet of technocrats to address Iran's nuclear and domestic problems. In addition, Hassan Rouhani's choice of a U.S.-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, seems to be primarily aimed at solving Iran's nuclear program and making progress in Iran-West and Iran-U.S. relations. Mr. Zarif was also chosen to be Mr. Rouhani's main foreign policy adviser.
'The war-mongering group'

Following the news conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed President Rouhani's call for talks and negotiations. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, called on Rouhani to schedule and plan the "meaningful talks" on the nuclear program as soon as possible. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, told reporters at a daily news briefing, "We've also expressed an openness to having direct discussions with Iran." She added, "But the ball is in their court. We still feel that they need to take steps to abide by their international obligations, and we're not at that point."

In addition, Rouhani, implicitly accused Israel of being the "war-mongering group" affecting U.S. foreign policy on Iran. Netanyahu, who previously called Hassan Rouhani "a wolf in sheep's clothing" responded in comments released by his office this week that "Iran's president said that pressure won't work. Not true! The only thing that has worked in the last two decades is pressure. And the only thing that will work now is increased pressure."

On the surface, it appears that the new president is deviating from the language used by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who favored combative, non-conciliatory, uncompromising language and rejected most of the talks and negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. Nevertheless, the major question is whether the new president of Iran will be capable of charting a way that will lead to a resolution over its controversial nuclear program and satisfy the P5+1 and the international community at large.

Although President Rouhani is using conciliatory language to address Iran's nuclear enrichment, and although he is not ideologically opposed to talks on Tehran's nuclear program, Iran's stance on its nuclear program doesn't appear to deviate from that of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad's position. Although Rouhani has called for "serious and substantive talks," he did not offer any indication that Iran would suspend its nuclear enrichment even during "serious and substantive talks" with the P5+1. At the conference, Rouhani pointed out, "As the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I state that the Islamic Republic's system is very seriously determined to solve the nuclear issue. It will defend its people's rights and at the same time will remove the concerns of the other party."

The other key question is, what is Hassan Rouhani's real political position on Iran's nuclear program? It is clear from his first news conference and previous talks that he believes that he can strike an agreement with the P5+1 by using conciliatory language; meanwhile, he continues the nuclear program and Iran's centrifuges continue to spin.

The reason that Hassan Rouhani is using this two-track nuclear policy or the reason that he is using a double-edged sword is that the past four rounds of international sanctions have severely weakened Tehran's economy in the region, devaluated its currency, increased the unemployment rate, isolated Iran, and augmented inflation. In order to improve the state of Iran's economy Rouhani does not seem to have any other option rather than using a softer tone with the international community, P5+1, and IAEA.

If Rouhani insists on continuing Iran's nuclear program while using softer language as he suggested at the news conference, he may be able to buy a short period of time. But the ideological and political gap between the international community and Iran is too deep to bridge or to allow for the establishment of a permanent agreement. The United States, its allies, and the IAEA argue that Iran is in violation of UNSC resolutions that request a halt to the uranium enrichment. Recently the U.S. Senate wrote a letter to President Obama that stated that the time for diplomacy is over and that "Iran has used negotiations in the past to stall for time." The letter continued "Mr. President, we urge you to bring a renewed sense of urgency to the process. We need to understand quickly whether Tehran is at last ready to negotiate seriously. Iran needs to understand that the time for diplomacy is nearing its end." In addition, the overwhelming majority of congressmen in the House of Representatives voted (400 to 20) in favor of ratcheting up pressure on the Islamic state of Iran.

These rounds of sanctions are significant due to the fact that they are intended to target Tehran's most significant source of income and most important economic lifeline: oil.

Hassan Rouhani's two-track nuclear policy -- using diplomatic language while continuing to develop its nuclear program -- might help him achieve his objectives of reducing international sanctions on Iran for a short period of time. However, it remains to be seen whether the international community and IAEA will view Rouhani's policy as a genuine effort to strike a "constructive" permanent agreement or as an approach to buy time until Iran attains nuclear power status.

This article was originally published in Alarabiya.