Diplomats and observers said the contours of a potential nuclear deal were increasingly clear. Iran would agree to limit enrichment of uranium to 5 percent purity — good enough for nuclear power stations, but far short of weapons grade — get rid of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and agree to the additional protocol.
In return, the West would lift a significant part of its sanctions regime and recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium as part of a complete nuclear fuel cycle.
Shabani said he thought such a package would be acceptable to Tehran. However, it could still be extremely difficult to reach a deal given a long history of mutual distrust. The sequencing of mutual concessions would be subject of delicate negotiations as would be their irreversibility.
In such talks, the White House would be hamstrung by most US sanctions being in the gift of the US Congress, over which US President Barack Obama has limited sway.
“In Washington, there is a question of who is in charge of Iran policy,” said Jim Walsh, an expert on the Iranian nuclear program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
For the time being, Rouhani appears to have the supreme leader’s backing.
Earlier last week, Khamenei talked about the virtues of “heroic leniency” in diplomacy in a speech to the revolutionary guard that was widely seen as providing Rouhani the political space to make a nuclear deal.
Rouhani stressed the point in his NBC interview, saying: “In its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority. We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem.”
Observers fear that backing could evaporate if Rouhani is unable to deliver swift economic improvements in the form of loosening the sanctions which straitjacket on Iran. There are clear signs on the domestic stage at least that the supreme leader has delegated real power to the new president. Iranians have seen an almost daily series of changes that add up to a steady transformation of society since Rouhani’s inauguration last month. A new pro-reform and pragmatic Cabinet has restructured the senior management levels of major ministries, especially in the Iranian oil ministry, an important lever of power in a hydrocarbon-dependent economy.
The release last week of a number of prominent activists — including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh — has followed Rouhani’s appointment of Seyed Mahmoud Alavi as Iranian minister of intelligence. He has pledged to stay out Iranians private lives and invited Iranians who left the country after the 2009 disputed elections to return provided they had not committed a criminal offence.
Restrictions on local news agencies and newspapers seem to have eased with a few going as far as breaking the taboo on reporting the plight of political prisoners or the house arrests of opposition leaders.
Ali Alizadeh, an Iranian political analyst based in London, said the government’s reforms were rooted in a new spirit of pragmatism forged by sanctions, deep social and political discontent and the weakening of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
“The supreme leader ... has implicitly restrained the Iranian hardliners and has given theological license to retreat from what previously held the ideological edifice of the regime together: [the] nuclear program and lack of relations with the US,” Alizadeh said. “Unlike the last three governments, for the first time, the supreme leader, the government, major political factions of the regime and significant parts of the Iranian people are in temporary unison over a few important issues.”