Iran’s new president: A friend of the West?

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks at his first press conference since taking office at the presidency compound in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013.
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks at his first press conference since taking office at the presidency compound in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Now that President Obama has opened the door to improving U.S.-Iranian relations, all eyes will be on Hassan Rouhani.

The new Iranian president, who has been on something of an aggressive charm offensive of late, will take center stage Tuesday afternoon at the United Nations General Assembly. In his first remarks in front of the international body, Rouhani will likely try to distinguish himself from his vitriolic predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

After all, Ahmadinejad created sky high drama at previous UN gatherings. In 2009, several nations walked out after he questioned whether the Holocaust ever happened. In 2011, there was another walkout when he condemned Israel, railed against U.S. “slave masters and colonial masters” and said America used the “mysterious Sept. 11 incident” as a pretext for launching wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Don’t expect that sort of bombastic rhetoric from Rouhani. He’s already taken a more conciliatory approach toward the U.S., perhaps because Iran’s economy has taken a big hit from western-imposed sanctions. Rouhani and Obama have confirmed the two have exchanged letters, a big change from the longstanding silence that has for decades characterized Washington’s relationship with Iran.

Rouhani also told NBC News’ Ann Curry last week that his administration would never seek weapons of mass destruction, that he has the “full authority to make a nuclear deal with the West” and that everything is on the negotiating table.

It remains unclear if Rouhani will lay out concrete examples of what he’s willing to do in terms of Iran’s nuclear program and prove that it’s not just talk.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that if Iran truly wants a different relationship with the west “they have to act…there will have to be real steps” to address the international community’s concerns about the country’s nuclear weapons programs.

President Obama, at the U.N., expressed optimism. He said Tuesday he would direct Secretary of State John Kerry to work toward a diplomatic solution with Iran.

“We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful,” he said.

Despite speculation that Rouhani and Obama may meet face-to-face, two senior U.S. administration officials said the Iranians were not ready to have such a meeting and that the encounter proved “too complicated” for Iran back home. They added Obama had been open to an informal meeting.

It would have been the first direct interaction between a U.S. president and an Iranian leader since the 1979 revolution in Iran.

Not everyone is thrilled with the prospects of the U.S. engaging with Rouhani. Thousands or Iranian Americans and human rights advocates were expected to gather at the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York to protest Rouhani. They argue Rouhani’s regime has executed 170 people since his election, oversaw two deadly attacks on Iranian dissidents in Iraq, and deceived the international community while advancing a nuclear weapons program.

Iran's new president: A friend of the West?