The moment of truth is coming. All the optics from Tehran -- even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal. If a deal can't be made in the next few months, it's hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.
And yet skepticism about the ability of Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, to cut a deal is certainly warranted. Iranian presidents have much less power -- especially on foreign and security affairs -- than the supreme leader. And yes, Khamenei's recent public statements remain full of suspicion and enmity toward the West. But even Khamenei seems to be signaling his desire to find an end to the nuclear stalemate. On Sept. 17, in a meeting with senior Revolutionary Guard commanders, he addressed them on the question of "flexibility": "A wrestler can even show flexibility sometimes, but he does not forget who his rival is and what his main goal is."
Indeed, the supreme leader has been less than his usual vitriolic self when it comes to U.S. policy toward Syria. In a Sept. 11 speech, he was downright complimentary: "If [U.S. leaders] are serious about their recent outlook, this means that they have turned back from the wrong path which they have been taking during the last few weeks."
Meanwhile, ever since he took office, Rouhani has been on a public relations offensive aimed at the West and reformists within his country. His most recent salvo was an interview with NBC News in which he said he had full authority to conclude a nuclear deal with the West. He has also recently exchanged letters with President Barack Obama, overseen the release of 11 political prisoners, and cautiously warned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps about getting involved in the political arena. When he travels to New York City next week to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, Rouhani will have a chance to transform this thaw in relations into a real diplomatic opportunity.
If Iran's recent political history holds true, Rouhani has a unique window of opportunity to win sanctions relief. The last three Iranian presidents before him were able to influence policy in their first year before their powers faded. Each came into office with a strong agenda: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's goal was economic liberalization; Mohammad Khatami aimed for a cultural opening, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad peddled a populist message. And all three were successful in making progress at the start of their terms -- though they all ran into strong resistance from the supreme leader as their tenure dragged on, which reversed their policies.
Rouhani is even better placed than his predecessors to have real influence. He enjoys support from a broad swath of the Iranian political spectrum -- from hard-liners to reformists -- in no small part because of the lessons each camp is drawing from developments across the region. Hard-liners realize that the "resistance policy" advocated by the previous team has not worked well. Resistance has brought Iran only more sanctions, led Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the brink of disaster, and lost Hezbollah the broad public support it once commanded across the region. They see Rouhani's strategy as a new approach toward the same goals, and they are willing to give it a try.
As for Iran's reformers, they look to Cairo and see what happened to deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy as a sobering lesson for what could have happened in Iran had they prevailed in 2009. A sharp confrontation with the old system and the security forces it controls, in other words, could have quickly brought about a de facto coup.