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Obama overture elicits cautious response from Iran

An Iranian advisor welcomes the U.S. president's New Year wish for a new beginning in relations but says Tehran seeks changes in U.S. Mideast policies before it will agree to rapprochement.

March 21, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — Iran reacted with cautious praise Friday to President Obama's Persian New Year overture for a new beginning in relations, coolly resorting to its default rhetoric whenever an American leader tries to make nice: Thanks, but change your policies, then we'll talk.

In Tehran, the ruling establishment clearly regards Obama's conciliatory gestures with suspicion. Officials worry that his encouragement to rejoin the community of nations is actually aimed at dividing Tehran's leadership and paving the way for greater isolation.

The conservative and hard-line political factions now dominating the Islamic Republic suspect that the new U.S. administration's softened rhetoric is a diplomatic outreach meant to fail. Any resistance from Iran, they believe, would persuade now-reluctant leaders in China and Russia to take tougher action against the Islamic Republic.

The suspicion was reinforced by the release of another Persian New Year's greeting, from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who urged Iranians to set aside their country's nuclear ambitions on the premise "that your children cannot eat enriched uranium."

The Israeli move is likely to undermine Obama's message, reinforcing Iran's belief that the U.S. and Israel are formulating an Iran policy that is more subtle than that of the Bush administration, but just as hostile.

Despite Obama's personal popularity among ordinary Iranians, officials in Tehran see his gestures as a potentially threatening attempt to repackage rather than reformulate U.S. policies. They believe he could regain international credibility and support for the long-held Washington strategy of keeping Iran isolated and afraid.

Last week the U.S. renewed sanctions against the Islamic Republic instituted during the Clinton administration, a move Iranians pointed to as a reason for their doubts.

"They say, 'Do not be carried away. Do not be fooled by this man, Obama,' " said Sadegh Zibakalam, a political scientist at Tehran University, characterizing the position of Iranian officials suspicious of Washington. " 'He is as harsh and he is as dangerous and he is as much against Iran as George Bush. . . . Obama is disguising his policy against Iran.' "

During the presidential campaign last year, Obama made reaching out to Iran a priority of his foreign policy, calling the Bush administration's tough rhetoric a failure. In his extraordinary, three-minute videotaped message early Friday, Obama congratulated Iranians on the beginning of the Persian calendar year 1388 and praised Iran's history and civilization, but noted that relations between Iran and the U.S. have been strained for nearly 30 years.

Iran responded gracefully, but dismissively. "We welcome the wish of the U.S. president to put away past differences," Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an advisor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told The Times, reading from a statement.

"But the way to do that is not by Iran forgetting the previous hostile and aggressive attitude of the United States. If Obama shows a willingness to take action, the Iranian government will not show its back to him."

The Obama administration realizes that it must overcome decades of mistrust to make talks work. It has pointed to potential cooperation on Afghanistan, where U.S. and Iranian interests overlap, as a way to build goodwill.

But though Iranians may be willing to play a more active role in assisting the Afghan mission led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, most doubt they can budge much on the central issues that divide Tehran and Washington: Iran's uranium enrichment program and its support for militant groups that oppose Israel.

Beyond cooperation on Afghanistan and Iraq, Iranians may ultimately not have much to offer the U.S. in any talks. Few believe the Islamic Republic would jettison support for Hamas in the Palestinian territories or Hezbollah in Lebanon, or abandon its decades-old ideological commitment to uphold the cause of militant resistance to the Jewish state.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this month called "resistance and fortitude" the only paths to a Palestinian state.

The nuclear issue is even more difficult to untangle. Tehran says it is developing nuclear technology only for civilian energy purposes, but the U.S., Europe and Israel suspect it is pursuing nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration long insisted that Iranians stop producing potentially dual-use nuclear fuel as a precondition for talks. Obama's deputies now hint such a cessation could be an ultimate goal of talks.

But in the six or so years since Iran's nuclear program became a matter of international concern, nuclear technology has become wedded to national pride. A swirling atom now illustrates the back of Iran's 50,000-rial bills.

Iran's multifaceted nuclear program has become untouchable; no official can call for its dismantling without risking political suicide.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates this month that she expected the outreach to Iran would not stop Iran's nuclear program, setting the stage for a united international community pressuring Iran to halt sensitive components of its nuclear program, a U.S. official told reporters traveling with her entourage.

Khamenei recently accused the Obama administration of a pro-Israeli tilt in its Middle East policy "that amounts to the same crooked ways of the Bush administration."

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daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.

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