The record of deception and concealment of Iran's leadership justifies the widespread mistrust that its current diplomatic charm offensive has aroused. Previous negotiations with the six world powers (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) have failed because of the refusal of Iran, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to agree on measures proving that they were really not intent on developing a nuclear bomb. During the presidential campaign that brought him to power in June of this year, President Hassan Rouhani hinted that he himself had played the make-believe card when he was the head of the Iranian delegation at international talks aimed at solving the standoff surrounding his country's nuclear program.
There are good reasons, therefore, to think that Iran's current diplomatic overtures may be one further gambit aimed at gaining time to develope a nuclear weapon.
And yet, given Iran's present economic woes and the ensuing social discontent, it would be a highly risky bet for the mullahs, and Khamenei in particular, to try to deceive yet again.
The outcome of last June's election proved that the gap is widening between Khamenei's hard-line conservatism and the Iranian public's expectations. Iranians overwhelmingly voted for Rouhani because, among the candidates allowed to run in that contest, he was regarded as the least close to Khamenei's conservative position. The mere fact that Rouhani defeated the Supreme Leader's chosen candidate is a sign that Khamenei's position may be in danger.
By their vote, Iranians demonstrated that they want and expect the new government to secure the lifting of the energy and banking sanctions that are damaging their country's economy. Thus, if Khamenei lays down too stringent limits on the concessions that Rouhani is allowed to offer or accept, and sanctions are maintained as a result of that intransigency, Khamenei's leading role in Iranian politics may suffer an additional blow.
Neither a majority of Iranians nor some segments of Iran's political elite seem to be willing to continue paying too high an economic price for the eventual development of a nuclear weapon. (According to one Gallup poll, only one-third of Iranians approve of weaponizing their country's nuclear program.)
With social malaise on the rise, the appeal of a nuclear program for military use may have lost much of its initial luster in the eyes of Iran's leadership. If the purpose is to shelter the mullahs' regime, it is far from certain that having the bomb would help to secure that objective. The main danger for the Iranian regime doesn't come from outside the country's frontiers, but from within. That danger has a name: mounting social discontent. And to counter that threat, weaponizing the nuclear program will be of little or no use.