BEIRUT — The U.S. government is pursuing a high-stakes gambit to improve relations with Iran, with President Obama delivering a conciliatory speech last month and later dispatching deputies to two international conferences in an attempt to find common ground with Iranians in attendance.
Still, many are doubtful that the diplomatic outreach will resolve 30 years of differences between Tehran and Washington.
Political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam heads the department of Iranian studies at Tehran University and has emerged as one of the most astute independent observers of U.S.-Iranian relations inside the Islamic Republic. Zibakalam, who recently spoke with The Times by telephone, said Obama's strategy just might work, by undermining the worldview of the hard-liners who now have the upper hand in Iranian politics.
"If there is rapprochement between Iran and the United States, then the hard-liners would receive a psychological blow because they can no longer claim that Iran is waging its historical crusade or struggle against an unjust world power," he said.
Do you see any possibility of the Iranian government making some kind of face-saving move that will defuse the argument of neoconservatives in the U.S. that there's no use negotiating with Iran?
The Iranian leadership is very much divided over the question of relations with the United States. On one hand, you have moderate pragmatists led by [Ayatollah] Hashemi Rafsanjani and that includes reformists and others in that sense. The other group, the hard-liners, are championed and led by the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The moderates have reached the conclusion that the animosity with the United States is detrimental to Iran's national interest and that it has suffered immensely as a result of waging, as it were, an ideological war with the United States.
The hard-liners see themselves as the leading historical worldwide crusade against U.S. "arrogance" and the world order. They regard themselves as . . . the vanguard of a universal struggle against the domination of the Western powers.
So how would they step back from that position? It sounds like a dead end.
In a sense it has been. Ayatollah Khamenei said that we haven't observed any positive move from Obama. He is saying: "How can you expect us to make a deal with Obama? On what basis are you saying that Obama's policies are different to that of George Bush?" [He] is simply disregarding Obama's olive branch and is saying . . . the animosity, the war, must simply be carried on.
How do the hard-liners view Obama's olive branches?
Since Obama came to power, many radical [conservative Iranian] thinkers . . . are trying to foment this idea that the U.S. has only changed its tactics toward Iran. The approach under George W. Bush was what they called the "heavy approach" in which the U.S. tries to pressure Iran militarily and with sanctions.
But . . . if anything, Iran emerged stronger after eight years of neoconservatives ruling the White House. So the U.S. . . . has employed a soft approach toward Iran. The U.S. is trying to manipulate and to use critics and opponents of the regime inside Iran, to galvanize them and support them.
In other words, the United States is trying to carry out a velvet revolution in Iran, something that the United States did in Ukraine and some other ex-communist states.
Do you think that there is any chance that Iran will compromise on the nuclear issue, perhaps by halting its enrichment of uranium?
A substantial reason for the Iranian insistence on the nuclear program is that they have realized that this is an insurance policy . . . that every country that has a nuclear industry, nuclear capability, has not been invaded [or] attacked by any other state. That does not necessarily mean building atomic weapons, but to become a nuclear power. The psychological feeling of insecurity has driven Iranian leaders toward insisting on becoming nuclear.
If the situation changes in such a way that the Iranians feel that no one is threatening them . . . I don't see any reason why Iranians would not soften their stance over the nuclear issue. . . .
The more the United States insist that Iran must halt its nuclear program, the more Iranian leaders are convinced that on the contrary, we must carry on . . . because that's the only way that we can be safe and secure from a possible U.S. attack.
Will the June 12 Iranian presidential elections make a difference?
It is a real election. Although there are months to the election, come to the university campuses, come to the mosques, come to the factories, come to the schools, come everywhere and you'll see people are talking about the elections. The reformists have maintained that they are against the foreign policy of President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. They have said that Iran's position internationally has declined. They say that we were far more effective before Ahmadinejad. So it means that there will be changes in foreign policy. Ahmadinejad has been talking about this great crusade that Iran is waging against the world tyrannical power. If [he] can win . . . I presume it would give him a mandate.