A Friendlier Iran: Diplomatic Breakthrough or Sinister Feint?

Former political prisoner warns against historic trickery while ambassador sees thawing relations.

Iranian President Hassan Rowhani

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani

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Recent friendly overtures from the Iranian government have raised eyebrows in this hemisphere, leaving those who observe the mysterious goings-on in the theocratic nation wondering: "What are they up to?"

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Iranian officials announced late Wednesday they are open to new negotiations on Iran's high-profile nuclear program. The government has also decided to release several political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. This followed a tweet last week from President Hassan Rouhani, who has been tagged a moderate, wishing "all the Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah."

As the sun is about to set here in #Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah. pic.twitter.com/tmaf84x7UR

— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 4, 2013

Economic sanctions continue to cripple the Middle Eastern nation's economy, which worsened during the hard-line regime of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Now experts, diplomats and activists are trying to decipher what may happen as countries from around the world arrive in New York next week for the annual U.N. General Assembly.

"Given the dire situation in the region, with civil war in Syria, Iraq still very unstable, Arab Spring spreading to Bahrain and Yemen, Iran is seeing that instability in the region requires less hardline positions and to be at least at the table and have a voice," says Qamar-ul Huda, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

"Every time they have a hard-line position, whether on Egypt or Syria or funding Hezbollah, it's always isolated them," says Huda, who has traveled repeatedly to Iran. This also makes it difficult for Iran to maintain the support of Russia and China, two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council with veto power.

Former Ambassador William H. Luers, the director of the World Affair's Council's Iran Project, believes Iran is serious about changing its tone.

"They are trying to affect public reactions, public thinking and congressional thinking about where they are," says Luers, who also served as ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia during his 31 years in the U.S. Foreign Service. "They need to change their relationship with the U.S. and with the world."

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Continued sanctions against Iran have crippled its economy, particularly in recent years as more countries target Iran's petroleum products. Oil revenues accounts for as much as 65 percent of government income in recent years, according to USIP.

But not all observers have an optimistic take on Iran's latest mood swing. Amir-Abbas Fakhravar was born in Tehran, and worked as a journalist and activist there before moving to the U.S. seven years ago. He was jailed on 19 separate occasions in his home nation, totaling five years of his life. He says he was tortured and kept in solitary confinement.

"This is definitely not any type of genuine change in their behavior," he says.

"They need to smile to the world and say 'Look, we are good people and are moderate,'" says Fakhravar, citing the devastating effect of Western sanctions. "They don't have money. And because they don't have money they can't control people any more."

The people are angry, he says, and these demonstrations by the government are solely to shift the U.S. away from its own hard-line against the Iranian regime.

Fakhravar cautions against too much enthusiasm for Iran's latest moves. The State Department issued a statement Wednesday night welcoming news that Iran intends to release select prisoners.

"President Rouhani pledged repeatedly during his campaign to restore and expand freedoms for all Iranians, and called for expanded political and social freedoms, including freedom of expression," said deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf. "In the months ahead, we hope he will continue to keep his promises to the Iranian people."

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