Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, has told a US network that his country will never seek a nuclear bomb. The interview was aired just days before he is due to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York in what will be his first appearance as president on the world stage.
His words have left Western leaders wondering whether Iran is ready to take a more moderate line over its disputed nuclear programme or whether this is a case of subtle maneuvering to avoid further sanctions.
Speaking from his presidential compound in Tehran, Rouhani said: "We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so."
"President Obama sent a letter to me. In that letter he congratulated my election .... From my point of view the tone of the letter was positive and constructive. It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future," he added.
I think the Iranian government is genuinely interested in resolving [the] issues that it has with the United States … and [the] trip that Rouhani is making to New York is going to be quite significant, because a lot of people are watching this in Tehran, and they seem to be thinking that the ball is in the US court. And the US government should take this opportunity and use it to basically resolve these issues if they are … interested in resolving these issues.
The White House responded with the following statement: "We hope that this new Iranian government will engage substantively in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran's nuclear programme. We remain ready to engage with the Rouhani government on the basis of mutual respect to achieve a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue."
But Rouhani's comments have raised questions about whether he has the power to make such important decisions. After all, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is known to have the final say on all nuclear issues.
However, on Tuesday, he too seemed uncharacteristically conciliatory: "We don't want nuclear weapons, not because of pressure from the US or others but because of our belief that no one should have nuclear weapons. When we say no one should have nuclear weapons that means not for them and not for us either.”
In a further gesture ahead of Rouhani's visit to New York, Iran has released a dozen political prisoners. They include prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who defended opposition activists and was sentenced to six years in prison for so-called security offences.
Rouhani is a former activist, lawyer and academic who has earned the nickname 'the diplomatic sheikh'. The Muslim cleric has been an influential figure in Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution, twice serving as a national security adviser. But he is, perhaps, best known for his role as Iran's top nuclear negotiator, in which capacity, in 2005, he made a huge concession to the West by offering to suspend nuclear enrichment.
His presidential campaign spoke of "moderation and wisdom" and promised reforms and efforts to ease sanctions. Jack Straw, a former British foreign secretary, described him as "someone we can do business with".
The US first imposed sanctions against Iran in 1979, when 52 Americans were held hostage by pro-revolution students who took over the US embassy in Tehran. And it has been under some form of restriction ever since.
The US has imposed some of the toughest restrictions, cutting into Iran's oil exports and imposing strict embargos on trade, aviation and even food. The UN added its weight in 2006, passing a raft of sanctions, including an arms embargo and financial restrictions. And a year later, the European Union targeted oil and gas exports and transactions with Iranian banks.
So is Rouhani's message a sign of thawing relations or more diplomatic deception? And will Western powers trust the message?
To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Shiulie Ghosh, is joined by guests: Foad Izadi, a political science professor at the University of Tehran; Geneive Abdo, a non-resident fellow at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution; and Alon Liel, a former deputy director of the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs and current professor of International Relations at Tel Aviv University.
"We are seeing things in Iran that we have not seen before ... he has released political prisoners, he has already started an economic reform programme in Iran. He said very publicly that his administration's priority is sanction relief, and as we know the Iranians are suffering tremendously due to the sanctions .... I think what was happening is that those in the US who push for sanctions ... they are seeing now that perhaps the sanctions actually achieve what the US government hoped for."
- Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Brookings Institution