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Iran watches U.S. campaigns, hoping for signs of detente

Tehran could follow by urging Shiites in Iraq to rein in militias, and by stemming violence in Afghanistan.

April 22, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — If an Iranian woke up in America and glimpsed the front page of a newspaper, he'd be reminded of home: a teetering economy, a rest- less populace, a tough-talking leader.

This nation is fascinated by what it calls the Great Satan, and it is watching the U.S. primaries for signs of how it might benefit from crises similar to its own facing the new American president. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, this theocracy has clashed with Democratic and Republican administrations alike; it has endured international sanctions while practicing shadow diplomacy and brinkmanship.

Iranians know the new U.S. leader will inherit an overextended military in Iraq, a declining dollar, high oil prices and a sub-prime mortgage crisis that are straining the American economy. This scenario, analysts here suggest, may lead to a softer U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become widely admired for his harsh line against the Bush administration.

Iran would be seeking signs of detente from the new American leader, including the lifting of sanctions, the unfreezing of about $20 billion in Iranian assets and Tehran's membership in the World Trade Organization. Iran is skilled at playing the outcast, but it craves international political legitimacy at a time its gas and oil reserves are being sought by China and India, whose energy demands are escalating.

Tehran could reciprocate U.S. overtures by pressuring fellow Shiite Muslims in Iraq to rein in insurgents and militias, and by stemming violence in Afghanistan. At recent Friday prayers, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani hinted that Iran could work with the U.S. in calming regional tensions. His statement was vague but suggested a degree of diplomacy absent from Ahmadinejad's anti-Western rhetoric.

It is unclear how Iran's ruling clerics and the next American administration would resolve Tehran's support of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, two militant Islamic groups that have long been U.S. adversaries.

There is also little indication that Iran would halt its nuclear enrichment program, which the Bush administration says is designed to build a nuclear bomb. Tehran says its nuclear ambitions are only for civilian energy projects.

Some analysts wonder whether the Islamic Republic, led by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants a significant improvement in relations with the U.S. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when militants in Tehran seized 52 American hostages and held them for 444 days, the weekly chants of "Death to America" have become a defining mantra, much in the same way Bush's "axis of evil" resonates with American conservatives.

"For an ideological regime like Iran's you need an enemy, and the U.S. is a good enemy because of all the notorious things it's done in the region," said cleric Mohammad Ali Abtahi, head of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in Tehran. "If you have a big enemy, it makes you big too."

But, like the U.S., Iran is feeling the squeeze of an economy in turmoil and an uneasy population. Unemployment and inflation are high, even as Iran is benefiting from soaring oil prices. Recent parliamentary elections highlighted the split among conservatives between those who support the populist Ahmadinejad and detractors who blame him for mismanaging the economy. These concerns and the weight of economic sanctions could lead to a less aggressive foreign policy.

Iranian analysts watching the U.S. presidential contest believe Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, although both viewed as sympathetic to Israel, would be better for U.S.-Iran relations than Republican Sen. John McCain, who is regarded as pragmatic but ideologically closer to President Bush on matters such as Iraq and the use of military force.

Iranians have been startled by some of McCain's comments. In March, the senator accused Iran of sheltering and training Al Qaeda militants; he quickly retracted the statement. When campaigning in South Carolina in 2007, McCain joked about bombing Iran to the tune of a Beach Boys song.

"If Mr. Obama won the election, it would be good," said Hooshang Tale, a former member of parliament. "He's a newcomer without the old ties, and we can hope that American policy would undergo a deep change. I think Mrs. Clinton still represents old Washington, the past regimes. The U.S. must take the first step. If a small country like Iran takes the first step it can lose face, but the big power doesn't lose his face."

A geophysics student at Tehran University, who gave his name only as Behrang for fear of retribution, said: "I'm a fan of Hillary Clinton. If she is elected it will help, but, really, it's a question of whether Iran will change, not so much who changes in the White House."

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