On a hot summer evening in July 2005, I sat in the living room of the foreigners’ dormitory at Tehran University and watched as Hassan Rowhani gave a speech broadcasted by the Iranian television. He was coming to the end of his term as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and was publicly defending, yet again, his decision, taken in late 2003, to suspend Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. On September 24, Rowhani gave his first speech as Iran’s president to the United Nations General Assembly. What he said was driven by the same desire for engagement that I had witnessed eight years earlier. Central to its diplomatic effectiveness was his awareness of the need to reassure his audience. Gone was the defiance of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who had used his UN speeches to lambaste Israel, deny the Holocaust and make disgraceful remarks about the 9/11 attacks). Rowhani stated that Iran posed “absolutely no threat” to anyone and reiterated that its nuclear program was peaceful.

In this, he was doing no more than repeating Iran’s official position, a line that even Ahmadinejad unfailingly followed – but his statements acknowledging the need to interact with the world and that solving the nuclear crisis was integral to Iran’s national interest were more considered and welcomed.

The same can be said of his later remarks in an interview with CNN, in which, seeking to undo some of the damage done by Ahmadinejad, he described the Holocaust as a “reprehensible” crime against the Jewish people. It was no more than he should have said but it was yet another indication that Iranian diplomacy will now be more measured or, at any rate, less gratuitously offensive.

A cynic might say that his performance at the UN was all talk – but this is a crisis largely (though by no means exclusively) fought out in words and he chose what he said carefully. In so doing, he created the conditions for two diplomatic breakthroughs that would have been impossible six months ago. First was the meeting between Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the US secretary of state, John Kerry – the first such formal talks between the two countries since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Yet Iran and the US are only two of the main actors in the nuclear crisis. The third – and potentially the most volatile – is Israel, which believes Iran is seeking a bomb. Rowhani has unsettled the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, whose description of him at the UN as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” carried in it the shrill note of fear. And well it might: the last thing Netanyahu and Israel need is a moderate Iranian president set on détente. If the prime minister could have voted in Iran’s election, he would surely have chosen four more years of Ahmadinejad – the corporeal embodiment of the “rogue Iran” narrative.

SHER MUHAMMAD KHAN,

Multan, October 18.