Many attribute Iran’s recent “charm offensive” toward the West to the election of President Hassan Rouhani. Upon closer look, it appears that the intransigent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the uncompromising Ali Khamenei were in fact the ones who opened the way for the current breakthrough.
Perhaps the most superficial analysis of the positive turn that US-Iranian relations have taken says that the “oppressed” Iranian people threw off the yolk of the conservatives and voted a moderate, reformist into office who is willing to deal with Washington .
In fact, well before President Hassan Rouhani decided to run for elections, in a 21 March 2013 speech, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei began to draw the outlines of a more flexible stance on his country’s nuclear program. Khamenei called this new approach “revolutionary flexibility” or “heroic flexibility,” saying that “flexibility is useful – and sometimes necessary.”
In the course of his speech, the supreme leader expressed the Islamic Republic’s willingness to place the country’s nuclear activities under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in return for recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium and carry on with its peaceful nuclear program.
Khamenei called this new approach “revolutionary flexibility” or “heroic flexibility,”  saying that “flexibility is useful – and sometimes necessary.”
Such a turn would not have been possible during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term – not as a result of the former president’s uncompromising disposition toward the West, but circumstances at the time simply did not allow any kind of rapprochement between the two sides.
George W. Bush and the neocons still had the upper hand in Washington when Ahmadinejad came into office, with no option before the incoming president than to stand strong in the face of Western pressure or submit as his predecessor Mohammad Khatami had done without extracting any concessions in return.
With the blessings of Khamenei, Tehran at the time decided to take a harder line, forging ahead with its nuclear program in the face of mounting threats from Israel and the West. When Ahmadinejad came into office, for example, Iran possessed but a few hundred centrifuges of the first generation. At the end of his term, the country was operating around 17,000, with another thousand, second-generation centrifuges about to be put into service.
Ahmadinejad’s offensive succeeded, particularly in light of Washington’s growing difficulties in the region and the onset of a debilitating financial crisis in 2008. As the 2013 elections approached, Khamenei determined that it was time for a more flexible approach that would nevertheless remain firm on the core principles, specifically Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad’s personality was amenable to the task at hand, just as Rouhani’s is also suitable for the course Tehran has decided to take today. But at the end of the day, what determines the policies adopted on a matter as important as Iran’s nuclear program are the given circumstances, the outlook of state institutions, and the predisposition of the supreme leader.
The question remains: Has Iran pushed forth with its nuclear achievements in order to take a step back in return for international recognition of its right to develop nuclear energy? That is, did it reach 20 percent enrichment only to concede in return for 5 percent enrichment? Or does it seek full recognition of all its nuclear activities in return for concessions in other files, like Syria? The coming weeks and months will tell.