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Obama Administration Caught In The Middle On Iran

The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's president has presented the Obama administration with a policy challenge. Rouhani was the most moderate of the presidential contenders, and analysts see improved chances for breaking the impasse over Iran's nuclear program. But Congress is moving in the other direction, enacting even tougher sanctions. The Obama administration seems caught in the middle.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In just over a week, Iran will inaugurate a new president. Hasan Rouhani was the most moderate of the presidential candidates, and his election last month has raised hopes that Iran's isolation might end. The United States and its allies have imposed tough sanctions on Iran to block it from developing a nuclear weapon, and the outgoing government responded defiantly to that kind of pressure.

Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten on the prospects now for breaking the Iran impasse.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Iran's central bank this week announced that prices in June for food, fuel, and other consumer goods were 45 percent above what Iranians were paying one year ago. That inflation is one reason Iranian voters chose Hasan Rouhani to be their next president. Their government's refusal to come clean on its nuclear program had triggered ever-tougher sanctions, which in turn deepened Iran's economic pain. In his campaign, Rouhani advocated a new approach to the nuclear negotiations in order to get some sanctions relief.

So maybe his election was a turning point. Robert Einhorn - until two months ago, a State Department special adviser - negotiated regularly with the Iranians.

ROBERT EINHORN: They're suffering from the sanctions. They recognize that a way out involves significant concessions on the nuclear issue. I think we need to explore whether there's an opening here.

GJELTEN: Einhorn, now at the Brookings Institution, does not say the U.S. and its allies should back off on demands, for example, that Iran open up to nuclear inspections. But he says Western diplomats could be clearer with the Iranians on what exactly they might get in exchange for concessions they make.

EINHORN: One idea is to lay out a road map of where this process would go, and perhaps agree, not on its details but on some of the basic principles underlying it.

Would reaching out like that make a difference? Another U.S. participant in the Iran negotiations thinks that no matter what signals the U.S. and its allies send, the ball is still in the Iranians' court.

GJELTEN: Gary Samore was the White House coordinator for arms control until last March.

GARY SAMORE: President Obama made repeated efforts to try to set up a direct channel of discussions with the Iranians.

GJELTEN: But, in his words, the Iranians generally ran away from such overtures.

SAMORE: We would say that we, you know, have authorization to meet with them, and they would come back the next day and say, sorry, we have no permission to meet with you.

GJELTEN: The White House - for the moment, at least - is downplaying hopes that Hasan Rowhani's election will bring an immediate change in Iran's attitude toward nuclear negotiations.

A spokesman at the National Security Council says: Our assessment remains that ultimate authority for decisions related to Iran's nuclear ambitions rests with the Supreme Leader.

Iran's Supreme Leader is Ayatollah Khamenei. Iran's president, no matter who he is, may not have the freedom to make a deal.

But Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says even the Ayatollah, with his Supreme Leader status, has to consider what the people want - in Iran and beyond.

RAY TAKEYH: The citizens of the Middle East demand empowerment. You see that in Egypt, you see that in Turkey, you see that elsewhere. So he's no longer living in a region or a country where citizens are passive and indifferent.

GJELTEN: Actually, there's an argument that, given Iran's political and economic vulnerability right now, this is the time to increase the pressure, not relieve it.

Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

MARK DUBOWITZ: What needs to done is to go after its foreign exchange reserves, its exports, go after its currency, and in doing so bring the regime closer and closer to the brink of economic collapse. Only then will the regime and the Supreme Leader, I believe, understand that they have to make meaningful concessions.

GJELTEN: There is new legislation in both the House and the Senate that would pile more sanctions on Iran; but it's unlikely to move fast.

Gary Samore, who went from the White House to Harvard, says it's not yet time to show new toughness if only because it would be hard to get international support for more pressure just as Iran is inaugurating a more moderate president.

SAMORE: I think we first have to demonstrate that we have made an effort to explore whether the Rowhani government is prepared to agree to some of our demands. And if it turns out that they're not, then I think we'll be in a much stronger position to get support from other countries for sanctions.

GJELTEN: For its part, the Iranian government is holding off on new peace signals. The U.S. government this week got official word that it is not on the invitation list for Hasan Rouhani's inauguration.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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