Washington is preoccupied with two all-consuming debates right now.
First, of course, is Syria. President Barack Obama placed his faith in two wholly untrustworthy figures. Syrian President Bashar Assad has shown himself to be a consummate liar, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's overarching goals on Syria are to protect Mr. Assad and show up the United States.
Meantime, Democrats and Republicans are locked in ever more hostile arguments over the price that right-wing zealots are trying to exact to pass the annual budget and extend the debt ceiling.
Important issues, for sure. But these problems are sucking all the oxygen out of the room while Iran is practically screaming to be noticed.
Iran's new president, Hasan Rowhani, is presenting himself as the genuine moderate he promised to be. That's how he won election in June, telling voters that he would offer "moderation and maturity" and not "extremism." And so he has behaved since, saying repeatedly, for example, that "we want the people in their private life to be completely free" to say whatever they want, look at whatever they want online and elsewhere.
What's more, he has continually insisted that he wants to resolve the nuclear debate with the West, promising that his office enters with "full power and complete authority" to "solve this problem." The truth, however, is that Mr. Rowhani is essentially the vice president. Full authority rests with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the hardline supreme leader. But, even more surprising, Mr. Khamenei has offered cautious endorsement for Mr. Rowhani's efforts.
This month, he told an Iranian news agency, "I agree with what I years ago called heroic flexibility because this is sometimes a very good and necessary move" while "sticking to a basic condition." He didn't explain what the "basic condition" might be. But that and other recent remarks indicate that he is backing Mr. Rowhani's efforts — even the president's order to the powerful Revolutionary Guard last week to stay out of politics.
All of this sounds so encouraging, but of course caution, even suspicion, are necessary bywords for dealing with Iran. U.S. leaders have not had direct, face-to-face discussions with Iranian leaders since 1979. And don't forget that, right now, Iran continues its strong support for the Syrian government, sending military and financial aid.
Nonetheless, Mr. Obama told the United Nations Tuesday, "I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested." In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart are to meet this week.
Some government officials are pessimistic, saying Iran's proclamations are all rhetoric, while others want to leap to the negotiating table. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney summed it up well, saying: "There's no question that the new Iranian government has been taking a different approach," but "actions are more important than words."
My conclusion from all of this is that sanctions are finally working. This new president won election by promising citizens he would improve their lives, but Iranians have shown the proclivity to rise up in angry protest. Neither Mr. Rowhani nor Mr. Khamenei wants to face that again.
Sanctions have cut Iran's oil exports by more than half, devastating the economy while bringing on hyperinflation — now hanging between 40 percent and 45 percent. The value of Iran's currency, the rial, has fallen by half. Worst of all from the government's point of view, the nation is not allowed to use the SWIFT international currency-exchange system — a crippling prohibition.
Farshad Ghorbanpour, an Iranian political analyst, told the International Herald Tribune, "economic reasons are now justifying political reasons to talk to the U.S."
And so Mr. Rowhani seems to be putting on a charm offensive. He released 11 high-profile political prisoners last week. He transferred authority for the nuclear program from the military to the foreign ministry — headed by his new, seemingly moderate foreign minister, Javad Zarif.
Then, after tweeting Rosh Hashanah greetings to Israel, Mr. Rowhani took Iran's only Jewish parliamentarian with him to the United Nations this week.
Numerous pundits from the left and the right have been opining that Mr. Obama's failure so far to attack Syria is empowering Iran and North Korea to continue pursuing their nuclear programs with impunity.
For Iranians, the decision not to attack for now seems to have had the opposite effect. Had Washington bombed Syria, do you think Foreign Minister Zarif would have tweeted Tuesday that the U.S. and Iran "have a historic opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue"?
And would Mr. Rowhani have offered further promises of moderation and cooperation with the U.S. while speaking during a military parade in Tehran on Sunday, and at the U.N. Tuesday afternoon — countering Washington's preoccupation with other issues?
Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun