TEHRAN — From time to time, the conservative Islamic cleric who is likely to be Iran's next president breaks into laughter. His white turban slides back, the crow's feet wrinkle at the corner of his eye, and it is hard to believe his message is a tough one.
The United States, says Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, Speaker of Iran's parliament and leading presidential candidate, should expect no compromise or olive branch from Iran.
The Islamic Republic is the focus, along with Iraq, of a "dual containment" US policy in the Persian Gulf. More than 20,000 American troops - along with prepositioned military equipment for tens of thousands more - are deployed in the region to enforce that policy.
Iranian officials often say privately that they would welcome a dialogue with the US. But in an interview peppered with complaints about anti-Iranian American behavior in the Middle East, Mr. Nateq-Nouri says that Iran would not engineer a dtente.
"America has not shown any goodwill or intention that would make us think about it," he says. US forces in the Gulf are a "threat to the security of the region" and an "unjustified ... flexing of muscles and showing of teeth."
Nateq-Nouri has strong support from Iran's most conservative clerics, and is considered the front-runner in Iran's May 23 presidential elections. President Hashemi Rafsanjani - a "moderate" who is close to Nateq-Nouri's chief rival - is barred by the Constitution from running for a third term.
Since the Islamic revolution that overthrew the pro-American Shah of Iran in 1979, the US has been officially vilified as the "Great Satan."
Iran ranks high on Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism and is subject to US sanctions, but American analysts have begun to warn that continued isolation of Iran - one of the most strategically important countries in the region - is harming US interests.
That is the underlying theme for Nateq-Nouri, too, though for him recent comments from American legislators have deepened distrust. Revelations that Congress authorized $20 million to undermine Iran, and comments from Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York that Iran could be "blown off the face of the earth" by US firepower are "irrational" and "increase hostility," he says.
Nateq-Nouri denied that he referred to the US as a "blood-sucking wolf" - though it was reported by Iran's official news agency - but lists many Iranian grievances that stretch back to American support for Iraq's war against Iran in the 1980s.
The American memory is clouded also by the US Embassy takeover in 1979, in which Iranian hard-liners held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days; and by Iran's support for Hizbullah guerrillas who held Americans hostage in Lebanon.
Nateq-Nouri's laugh usually comes when he makes a point that he deems self-evident. The recent US veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned Israel for planning to build in Arab East Jerusalem, for example, sparks a knowing chuckle.
When pressed on US steps that could lead to a dialogue, he says: "I believe the Americans are well familiar with this matter, and know what is good and what is bad."
Though Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, makes final decisions about foreign policy, Nateq-Nouri could determine day-to-day affairs. American fears, he says, are fueled by the resurgence of Islam in the region and for commercial reasons: to create an "enemy" for oil-rich Gulf allies, whose purchases of expensive arms are meant to buy protection well into the next century.
Such protection is not necessary, Nateq-Nouri insists. "[Americans] are selling their steel scraps in the form of armaments to the Gulf Arabs, and charging them for the US presence," he says. "To justify it, they are trying to intimidate them about Iran."