Americans are finding it difficult to make sense of the objectives of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during his visit to New York this week as part of the United Nations General Assembly session.
It is easier to do so if his situation is seen not only as a senior representative of the Iranian government abroad, but also as an effort to wend his way delicately through Iran's internal political minefield. Put another way, Mr. Rouhani, not unlike President Barack Obama, is not able to set or change foreign policy without reasonable support for it back home.
Mr. Rouhani's position is even more precarious than Mr. Obama's in that the Iranian president is answerable to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The ayatollah sometimes disowned actions by Mr. Rouhani's predecessor, the sometimes wild-eyed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but did, in fact, let the president finish his term.
Mr. Rouhani, who is seen as a centrist, struck a sharp contrast with Mr. Ahmadinejad's outward hostility when he told a CNN interviewer Wednesday that the Holocaust was a "crime the Nazis committed towards the Jews," one that was "reprehensible and condemnable." Because Mr. Ahmadinejad was a Holocaust denier, his successor's remarks made headlines around the world.
So far the ayatollah has let Mr. Rouhani seek to achieve what he can toward improving Iran's economic situation by indicating a willingness to discuss trading relief from international sanctions for bridles on its nuclear program. An analysis of why Iran appears to have changed its position on its nuclear program can provide a basis for the United States and others to consider whether Iran is now ready to make a deal, or whether it is playing games to buy time to move closer to possessing nuclear weapons instead. The latter is what some Israeli leaders say they think.
Arguments that Iran is playing for time are based on its record, that its ability to endure economic misery is high and that Iran will not feel safe until its own capacity balances Israel's suspected nuclear ability. Opposing arguments that Mr. Rouhani is playing straight are based on Iran's clear economic suffering from sanctions, the fact that nuclear energy would enable it to export more cash-producing oil, and that it would like to be on good terms again with the world.
If talks ensue, the opportunity to measure Iran's seriousness will emerge. But talks are the first step.