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Iran’s President Signals Possible Diplomatic Opening on Nuclear Program

September 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Now to Iran and what looks like a charm offensive not seen in more than three decades.

Ever since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran in June, he’s been sending signals that he is more open, more moderate than his predecessors. Perhaps his most overt olive branch was delivered last night during an interview with NBC News, in which he signaled a possible diplomatic opening on his country’s disputed nuclear program.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through interpreter): We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and we are not going to do so. In its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority. We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem.

GWEN IFILL: Rouhani also said he’d had a positive and constructive exchange of letters with President Obama on the issue, which the White House confirmed. The Iranian leader has already transferred responsibility for nuclear negotiations from Iran’s conservative military to the Foreign Ministry.

And, on Monday, the country’s new atomic energy head pledged increased cooperation with U.N. inspectors.

During an interview on Telemundo this week, President Obama said he welcomes the apparent diplomatic thaw.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are indications that Rouhani, the new president, is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States in a way that we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it.

GWEN IFILL: Other signs of defrosting, Iranian authorities unexpectedly released 11 political prisoners yesterday, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer. And earlier this month, in a tweet, Rouhani wished the world’s Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah.

Rouhani’s change in tone, at least, stands in stark contrast to the heated rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the previous president, who routinely attacked the West and denied the Holocaust. But Israeli government leaders remain deeply skeptical about Rouhani’s nuclear plans.

YUVAL STEINITZ, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister (through interpreter): We are warning the entire world, with all the kindness, smiles and the moderation Rouhani is reflecting, what is important are the facts on the ground.

GWEN IFILL: Although Rouhani will attend the U.N. General Assembly next week, there are no announced plans for him to meet with President Obama.