GWEN IFILL:  So, what do President Rouhani's overtures to the United States mean? And how much change is actually happening inside Iran?

For those answers, I'm joined by Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, and Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Program.

So, what is Rouhani up to, Karim Sadjadpour?

Karim Sadjadpour
Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.
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KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Well, I think as you said, Gwen, this is the most significant charm offensive that Iran has launched perhaps since 1979.

It has been fairly significant. And I think the big question is whether this is merely a tactical compromise in order to stave off economic pressure and reduce sanctions, or is this a strategic shift by Iran to alter its relationship with the outside world, and particular with the United States? And I think only time will tell. We're going to have to test that, as President Obama said.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Haleh?

HALEH ESFANDIARI, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: I think it's a strategic shift.

I think that the economic hardship that the people of Iran are feeling and have been sensing for the last eight years finally resonated with the supreme leader.

GWEN IFILL: Because of the sanctions?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Yes, because of the sanctions, of course, and I think that's why he gave at least a lot of leeway to President Rouhani to see whether he can do something about it.

You know, and he can -- he himself said that he has quite a lot of authority to be able to at least start a set of negotiations.

GWEN IFILL: When President Rouhani won and was installed in office, there was much discussion about how he was a moderate, a centrist. What does that mean in Iran?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, the bar of public diplomacy was set very low by the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

So, as long as Rouhani comes in and doesn't deny the Holocaust, doesn't call for Israel to be wiped off the map, vis-a-vis Ahmadinejad, he is perceived as a moderate. But historically within Iran, he has been a constant regime insider.

But his focus has always been kind of foreign policy and national security. And I think, in that respect, he has shown himself someone who is interested in putting Iran's national interests ahead of revolutionary, ideological interests.

And for the Obama administration, which is looking at the Middle East and almost every country seems to be unraveling, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, a lot of negative examples there, I think that Iran, ironically, is perhaps one of the few sources of hope for Obama to leave a positive diplomatic legacy.

GWEN IFILL: I was so curious about one part of Ann Curry's interview at NBC about when he was asked directly about this idea about whether he denied the Holocaust. And his answer was, I'm a politician, not a historian.

That seemed like a missed opportunity.


I think he felt he cannot come out straight and say, no, I think my predecessor made this horrendous mistake by saying that. So, he got away with this answer because he thought that his foreign minister, Zarif, who is equally a savvy politician, had already taken care of the Holocaust issue when he wrote on his -- the Facebook, I think, that -- or in his Twitter in answer to a question that happened to be Nancy Pelosi's daughter that the people of Iran never denied the Holocaust, and the person who is -- that person is no longer president.

So I think that Zarif took care of the Holocaust, and so he tried to wiggle his way around.

GWEN IFILL: So, maybe he is a politician.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: He is a politician par excellence, really, compared to his predecessor and the others.

GWEN IFILL: Karim, what do you say to people who wonder if all of this olive-branch-waving isn't a ploy to get sanctions lifted?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Anything is possible, Gwen, but we really won't know until we test it.

I don't doubt Rouhani's desire to pursue a detente with the United States. I think what is in question is whether he has the authority to carry out that detente with the United States.


KARIM SADJADPOUR: And we really don't know.

I have to say I was someone who didn't expect Rouhani to be allowed to be elected in the first place. And the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has looked at resistance towards America as one of the strategic pillars, ideological pillars of the Islamic republic for three decades.

Am I confident that he is prepared to abandon those pillars? I don't think so. But I think we won't know until we try to test it.

GWEN IFILL: Against that backdrop, Haleh Esfandiari, in 2007, you were released from being held in Iran. And you watched this prisoner release yesterday, I suppose, with special interest. How significant is it?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I think it's very significant.

And I felt very emotional when I saw the picture of the reunion of the young woman lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. But there were a whole list of people who were released, a former deputy foreign minister, all a group of reformists.

And I think it was very significant because it happened also on the eve of the trip of President Rouhani, who I'm sure will be asked about the other prisoners, political prisoners in Iran, including Karroubi and Mousavi and Mousavi's wife. So at least he has something to show.

GWEN IFILL: But there are dozens of others still...


HALEH ESFANDIARI: I mean, the numbers are roughly, they say, you know, around 800 political prisoners in different degrees, but maybe that is the first step.

But just to give you an example that nothing is as simple as one sees in Iran, already today, if you -- there were a press comments that -- saying that, well, these people had served their terms and had nothing to do, which is ridiculous. Everybody knew who was sentenced. But they want to try and cover it up.

GWEN IFILL: Does this new mutual outrage going on between the U.S. and Iran, does it help the president of the United States to square the circle on Syria at all?


At the moment, the U.S. and Iran are basically embroiled in a zero sum game in Syria. Bashar al-Assad's biggest backer is Tehran, and obviously the U.S. wants Assad to go. The irony is, at the moment, as I said, they're locked in the zero sum game.

But when and if Assad falls, there's actually going to be an overlapping interest between Washington and Tehran and Syria, which is this mutual concerns about radical Sunni jihadists, who probably hate Shiite Iran more than they hate the United States.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think will happen at the U.N. General Assembly next week? Is that the kind of platform -- is this all a buildup to that moment?


But I -- my sense is that he is going to give a speech which is very moderate in term, and showing that he is a man of compromise and a conciliatory tone. But he will also insist on the right of Iran. He is not going to compromise that. He will explain what Iran thinks is its rights when it comes to nuclear issues and then -- what I think is interesting to watch is his tone on issues that have been always important for Iran.

The Palestinian issue, for example, how is he going to formulate that? And that is something one needs to watch.

GWEN IFILL: To watch.

Well, we will be watching all of that. Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Karim Sadjadpour of Carnegie Endowment, thank you both very much.



This interview was originally broadcast on PBS NewsHour.