For the first time since the Arab Spring in 2009, Iranians were free to pull-up websites like Facebook and Twitter on Monday without running into a government firewall. The unfettered access lasted for all of one evening. By Tuesday morning, Tehran had reinstated the ban on websites that anti-government protesters used to organize four years ago, and officials attributed the brief bout of internet liberty to a technical glitch.
Still, there are signs of change in Tehran. While the firewall was down, the twitter account affiliated with the new President Hassan Rouhani posted a quote from a speech he gave before taking office this summer: “Gone are the days when a wall could be built around the country. Today there are no more walls.” The Iranian government has not confirmed who exactly runs this account, but the AP reports that Rouhani’s close aides are believed to be at the helm.
Steven Walt writes in Foreign Policy that President Rouhani “seems to be genuinely interested in resolving a lot of the existing differences” with the United States. On Monday, Iran’s new atomic energy chief voiced a “desire” for greater cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and perhaps to resolve Tehran’s nuclear standoff with the West. Walt notes it is “unrealistic to expect Iran to give up all nuclear enrichment, but it is realistic to imagine the Iranians agreeing to limit their activities in various ways and stay some distance away from a ‘breakout’ capability.”
Next week, President Rouhani and President Obama will both speak on the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly, and rumors are swirling that the two leaders may schedule a meeting–the first of its kind since the two countries cut diplomatic ties 1979. Spokespersons for each leader say there are currently no plans for a sit-down. But Iran confirmed Tuesday that President Rouhani has exchanged letters with President Obama, via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.
President Rouhani’s speech at the United Nations will provide more clues about the direction in which he plans to take his country. The West is watching to see if the window for diplomatic progress stays open–or closes as quickly as access to Twitter did this week.
Update: NBC’s Ann Curry interviewed President Hassan Rouhani Wednesday, and he told her Iran will never develop nuclear weapons. He also said that he has full authority to make a deal with the West on Iran’s nuclear program. Watch and read about the interview here.