In preparation for his speech at the UN General Assembly today (the same day as U.S. President Barack Obama), the new Iranian president, Hassan Rowhani, has conducted a diplomatic offensive of astonishing proportions, including an exchange of letters with Obama, network interviews, tweets and an op-ed in the Washington Post.
Rowhani'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 UN podiums.
"He recognizes that statements (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad made on Israel and the Holocaust caused Iran immense damage," says Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment. "He is making a conscious effort to be the anti-Ahmadinejad."
Skeptics will argue Rowhani offers a change of style, not substance. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called him a "wolf in sheep's clothing." While a dose of skepticism is healthy, however, there's growing evidence Rowhani is offering more than cosmetic changes.
We will know more soon: His UN speech, which is expected to include proposals to address concerns about Tehran's nuclear program, could be the prelude to the first top-level U.S.-Iran talks since Iran's revolution in 1979. In the meantime, here are six reasons why this diplomatic push may have legs.
One: The economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and UN on Iran's oil sales and money transfers have worked. "The sanctions have been breaking the back of the Iranian economy and consumers," says Haleh Esfandiari, a director at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. The Iranian administration is concerned people might riot.
Two: Rowhani appears to have the backing of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for his diplomatic efforts. Some experts believe the economic impact of sanctions convinced Khamenei; others think he may have more trust in Rowhani than in previous presidents. While the ayatollah's ideology is rooted in deep anti-Americanism, Sadjadpour thinks he might countenance detente with the Great Satan, if not rapprochement.
Three: Rowhani insists Iran isn't seeking weapons of mass destruction "including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever." Of course, this leaves unresolved the fact nuclear experts believe Iran was seeking to build a weapon prior to 2003 and still wants a breakout capacity.
But Tehran's intent will become more clear if talks resume. Rowhani'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 Ahmadinejad.
Four: Rowhani understands 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 Hashonah greetings earlier this month. When Nancy Pelosi's daughter tweeted the New Year would be sweeter if Iran ceased its Holocaust denial, Zarif responded: "Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone." Rowhani and Zarif have come under attack from Iranian hardliners for this twitter offensive. That may be the reason why, when Rowhani was asked in an NBC interview if he believed the Holocaust was a myth, he punted: "I'm not a historian. I'm a politician."
Five: Rowhani seems to recognize Iran needs better relations with the U.S. and its Gulf allies in order to calm spreading Sunni-Shiite violence in the region. Right now, Iranian policies are fuelling sectarian bloodshed, by backing Hezbollah and arming the Syrian regime, so it's hard to take seriously Rowhani's suggestion 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.
Six: Paradoxically, the U.S. decision not to bomb Syria may have made it easier for Rowhani to negotiate seriously on the nuclear issue, since it indicates 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 Rowhani will be willing to wait for sanctions relief until Iran proves its good intent.
Still, it's clear Rowhani is a leader to be taken seriously, the opposite of an Ahmadinejad. That's why his speech is eagerly awaited at the United Nations.
Trudy Rubin is an editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.