Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says new Iranian President Hassan Rohani is a "realist" who is "ready for a settlement" in Tehran's long-standing dispute with the West over its disputed nuclear program.
"There's been this election -- a surprise result for most people -- but a very big mandate for Dr. Rohani, who unquestionably was the most moderate of the candidates who were allowed to stand, and is a man, in my certain experience, one can do business with," Straw says.
Straw made the comments in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda shortly after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei unexpectedly called for "heroic flexibility' in diplomacy -- an apparent reference to negotiations with the United States and other countries that have imposed sanctions on Tehran over the lack of transparency in its nuclear program.
Straw says the new tone from the top in Iran is reason for optimism about the possibility of progress in negotiations after years of disappointing talks. "In handling the new administration of Dr. Hassan Rohani, and behind that, what I perceive to be a likely different approach by the supreme leader, we have to start by taking their words on their face value," he says.
Straw has firsthand knowledge of Rohani's operating style from the days when the two faced each other across the negotiating table, Straw as Britain's foreign secretary and Rohani as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, from 2003 to 2005.
In a September 18 interview with U.S. NBC News, Rohani said his government will never develop nuclear weapons and that he had full authority to negotiate a deal with the West on the disputed nuclear program.
Rohani, who has a law degree from Glasgow's Caledonian University, was elected in July on a platform that promised a moderate governing style and improved international relations. Iran watchers have already noted a shift in tone from his more hard-line predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
The man Rohani chose as his foreign minister, Mohammad Javid Zarif, earlier this week
told the Lebanese news channel Al-Mayadeen that Tehran was "prepared to build trust with the U.S. government on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program, which serves peaceful purposes."
Zarif and Rohani are set to travel to New York next week to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
Straw says the men's diplomatic skills are formidable. "My experience dealing with Dr. Rohani and Mr. Zarif, and many colleagues who are like that, is that they were very professional. They were on top of their dossier. They were also very committed to the Islamic Republic of Iran and to the heritage of their country," he says.
"I don't want you to get any idea that they are suddenly going to give away Iran's national interests. They are not going to [do that] any more than I, as a British politician, would want to give away Britain's national interest," Straw continues. "But they are realists, as well, and they understand about negotiations. And they are tough negotiators, but they are ready for a settlement."
There were rumors in both Tehran and Washington that U.S. President Barack Obama might have a face-to-face meeting with Rohani on the sidelines of the General Assembly, but both governments have denied those reports.
Straw says he thinks it will take "two or three stages" of talks between Iranian officials and officials at the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating group (permanent UN Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, plus Germany) before bilateral U.S.-Iran talks could be considered.
But he is optimistic that it could happen, as long as Iran agrees to disclose to the IAEA the details of its nuclear program, as international law requires. "If what both the supreme leader and Dr. Rohani have said repeatedly is correct, which is that Iran has no nuclear weapons," Straw says, "then it should be relatively easy to resolve this issue."
Written by Heather Maher, based on an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Hannah Kaviani