After eight years of bellicose rhetoric from his predecessor, Iranian President Hassan Rohani's smiling face is prompting a debate about whether his outreach is a promise or a ploy.
In an interview that aired last night on NBC, Rohani said Iran won't develop nuclear weapons, and in the last month he's exchanged letters with President Barack Obama and named a diplomat known as a moderate as his foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator. Earlier this week, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for "heroic flexibility" in negotiations.
Some Iran-watchers are hailing what they call an unprecedented opportunity to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program and end the country's international isolation. Others who doubt Iran's motives, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, say previous would-be reformers have all failed and Rohani's charm offensive is a ploy to win relief from economic sanctions.
The reactions from a dozen Iran specialists interviewed about the new government's message of openness ranged from optimism to disbelief. The skeptics called Zarif's Rosh Hashanah message disingenuous after years of anti-Israel vitriol from Ahmadinejad and, according to the U.S. government, Revolutionary Guard plots and terrorist attacks against Jews, Western interests and even Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and an advocate of tough sanctions on Iran, dismissed the Jewish New Year message as a stunt. He said the only leaders whose attitudes matter are Iran's supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard.
If Khamenei is Iran's chairman of the board and the head of the Revolutionary Guard is the chief operating officer, Rohani and Zarif are "vice presidents for marketing and sales," Dubowitz said.