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Conciliatory approach by Iran is welcome, but progress will hinge on actions

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is a kindlier looking man than his predecessor, the Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But President Obama is wise to be suspicious of Rouhani as Iran and the United States consider the possibility of resumed nuclear talks and closer relations.

No one should be deceived by Rouhani’s kindly appearance or his reputation as a “more moderate” cleric. He is the leader of a rogue nation that is seeking to develop atomic weapons and that would like nothing better than to see Israel obliterated. Trust comes hard.

Obama struck the right tone at the United Nations Tuesday, welcoming the chance for diplomacy to resolve the issues that divide Iran from the United States and much of the rest of the world, but also insisting that Iran take concrete actions. While he said he was “encouraged” by Rouhani’s election, Obama said that the new president’s “conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.”

Obama needs to stick to that requirement. Iran will need to prove its intentions.

There is some reason for hope. Rouhani is, in fact, more moderate that Ahmadinejad, although that isn’t saying much. But Iran is also suffering under the weight of crippling economic sanctions and international isolation. The government and the nation it represents have reason to want to relieve those pressures.

Rouhani even took a step that would have been unthinkable under his predecessor. In an interview that aired Tuesday night on CNN, he spoke briefly in English, saying “I would like to say to American people: I bring peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans.”

Whether that is a serious overture or soft soap will be determined by what Iran does next. It needs to prove that it is willing to pay the price for improved relations and a relaxing of the sanctions. That price includes curbing uranium enrichment and closing the nation’s underground Fordo nuclear facility in northwestern Iran.

It needs to forswear nuclear weapons and open its facilities to international inspections. It’s intrusive, but that’s the price for a country that exports terrorism and makes no secret of its desire to wipe Israel off the map.

What this shows is that Obama was correct to resist the hawks who called for military action against Iran before last year’s American presidential election. The Israeli prime minister was blatantly pushing for a military response, and even inserted himself into the election.

There are plenty of reasons to worry about Iran, but it is also sensible to search for diplomatic ways out of what is a deadly serious matter before this country launches yet another military campaign in the Middle East – and one vastly more threatening than any of the preceding ones.