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Trudy Rubin: Iran’s new leader should be taken seriously

Call him the anti-Ahmadinejad.

In preparation for his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday (the same day as President Obama), the new Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, conducted a diplomatic offensive of astonishing proportions, including an exchange of letters with Obama, network interviews, tweets and a commentary in the Washington Post.

Rouhani’s message: Iran is a responsible international actor with no intention of seeking a nuclear bomb. Subtext: No more bombastic denunciations of America and the West or Holocaust denials at the U.N. podium or other forums.

Skeptics will argue that Rouhani offers a change of style, not substance. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” However, while a dose of skepticism is healthy, there’s growing evidence that Rouhani is offering more than cosmetic changes.

Here are six reasons why this diplomatic push may have legs:

•  The economic sanctions imposed by the United States and United Nations on Iran’s oil sales and money transfers have worked. The Iranian administration is concerned that people might riot over food prices.

•  Rouhani appears to have the backing of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for his diplomatic efforts, at least for now. Some experts believe the economic impact of sanctions convinced Khamenei; others think he may have more trust in Rouhani, the consummate insider, than in previous presidents.

•  Rouhani insists Iran isn’t seeking weapons of mass destruction “including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever.” Of course, this leaves unresolved the fact that nuclear experts believe Iran was seeking to build a weapon before 2003 and still wants a breakout capacity. But Tehran’s intent will become more clear if talks resume. And Rouhani’s choice of chief negotiator is promising: Mohammad Javad Zarif, the U.S.-educated and pragmatic former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, who was sidelined under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

•  Rouhani understands that Ahmadinejad’s threats toward Israel and Holocaust denial badly damaged Iran’s image. He and Zarif have been engaging in some fascinating Twitter diplomacy, sending out Rosh Hashanah greetings earlier this month.

•  Rouhani seems to recognize that Iran needs better relations with the United States (and its Gulf allies) in order to calm spreading Sunni-Shiite violence in the region. Right now, Iranian policies are fueling sectarian bloodshed, by backing Hezbollah and arming the Syrian regime, so it’s hard to take seriously Rouhani’s suggestion that Tehran could mediate the Syrian conflict. But the Iranians do share Washington’s interest in curbing a new regional threat from Sunni jihadis, including al-Qaida, and that could provide the basis for beginning a dialogue.

•  Paradoxically, the U.S. decision not to bomb Syria may have made it easier for Rouhani to negotiate seriously on the nuclear issue, since it indicates that Washington is not bent on regime change – in Damascus or Tehran.

That said, it’s uncertain if Iran will do what’s necessary to convince the world it isn’t bent on building a bomb-making capacity, or that Rouhani will be willing to wait for sanctions relief until Iran proves its good intent.

Still, it’s clear that Rouhani is a leader to be taken seriously.