The sanctions worked. As did Obama's tougher-than-usual threat of bombing Syria. Never mind that he did not go through with it, Obama showed in no uncertain terms, that he was willing. His subsequent back-tracking then allowed for positive steps to take place. The brilliance of Obama's strategy was that he gave a glimpse, a real glimpse of his hawkishness, but only for long enough to let the opponents to manage a softer stance. Allowing the other players to play without losing face was what made Iran's supreme decider, Khamenei, bend.
In the span of 48 hours we have had a few rapid developments in Iran that all point at a thawing of the regime's hard-line stance. Yesterday, the Supreme Leader gave a talk where he praised diplomacy and called for "heroic flexibility," hinting at a new readiness to compromise on the nuclear issue. Our highest profile political prisoner, Nasrin Sotoudeh, was freed along with 11 others in a sudden decision by authorities that took everyone by a euphoric surprise. Then to top things off, NBC's Ann Curry flew to Tehran and interviewed the newly elected President Rouhani, who pronounced that Iran would never develop nuclear weapons. There was nothing new in that often-repeated pronouncement, but the president's tone and manner. His deliberate difference from his predecessor came in the soft-spoken Persian of an academic in direct opposition to the wild proclamations of a populist crowd provoker, like Ahmadinejad. Asked whether he considered Obama's backing off on Syria as a sign of weakness, he replied, "On the contrary -- we see it as a sign of strength. Those who seek war are weak." This seemed to be aimed at warmongers in America as well as hard-line opponents in Iran.
The events of the past 48 hours could not have been better choreographed. Whether it is the increase in the pressure on the regime because of tightened sanctions, the frighteningly precarious state of the economy, the back room deals made on Syria and Iraq with Russia and the U.S., the successful politicking of the Rafsanjani (more moderate) camp in Iran, or the persistent pressure felt from an increasingly impoverished and discontented population, it has led to this moment. This sudden openness and seeming willingness to strike a deal over the nuclear issue with the U.S. is new and has an urgency that needs to be reaped to the advantage both of the U.S. and the civil rights activists in Iran. Make no mistake: Khamenei makes the decisions in Iran. He did not go to sleep and wake up one day feeling softer and fluffier inside. His hand was forced. And it should stay that way until he delivers the nation from the double edged sword of a badly managed Mafiosi economy and thuggish social repression.
The recent election of the most moderate vetted presidential candidate took everyone by surprise. Many now firmly believe that the regime let the votes be counted, allowed Hassan Rouhani to win, because it needed a way to wiggle out of a dead-end position in negotiations with the Americans. Many see the new developments inside Iran as a sign of the regime's need to avoid further isolation, sanctions and even possibly a military attack. Iran needs to be seen as a senior actor in a region that is increasingly in need of the mentor-ship of a nation that has more experience in political upheaval and is now seen as indeed more stable and less radical than some of the alternatives. Syria has now provided Iran with a stage to play that role. It has also allowed the moderates in Iran to convince the Supreme Leader that he needs to soften his stance on both an international and a national level. The Supreme Leader can now pretend that his previous stance was simply the mannerism of the previous government under Ahmadinejad and portray this softening simply as the triumph of Islamic democracy.
No one is fooled by the regime, everyone knows that the freeing of Nasrin Sotoudeh, and other political prisoners and this new thaw in Iran's stance, is just in time for displaying a different face of Iran before Rouhani's first visit to the U.S. for the UN's annual meeting. But we also know that the regime has been weakened into this new stance and that the sanctions and the international pressure on Iran, for whatever reason, right or wrong, helped this weakening. Of course, nations act out of self-interest most of the time, but the interest of the U.S. to weaken the regime coincides with that of the Iranian people, so let us hope that in their negotiations they do not forget that there are many more inside that prison like Nasrin Sotoudeh waiting, hoping, to be freed. Any deal with Iran should include them if it does not want to betray the Iranian people.