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Persian New Year to bring U.S.-Iran thaw?

In the past week, mixed progress as a US journalist is charged with spying amidst positive statements from both countries.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 11, 2009

Istanbul, Turkey

As Iranians celebrated the Persian New Year recently, they witnessed the start of indirect talks between Iran and the United States, in what promises to become a highly orchestrated effort to ease three decades of mutual hostility.

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Each country is drawing lessons from failed past attempts at détente. They are learning from the mistakes of their respective former leaders, Bill Clinton and Mohamad Khatami, in the late 1990s, and the unbending stance of George W. Bush.

This week has seen mixed progress between the two nations. On Wednesday, in a departure from Bush administration policy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the United States would become a "full participant," not simply an observer, at talks with Iranian officials about the nuclear issue. The talks include the other four permanent members of the UN Security CouncilBritain, China, France, and Russia – as well as Germany.

The same day, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that he welcomed talks with the US if they were based on "honesty, justice, and respect."

But that gesture was marred by the announcement that a detained American journalist, Roxana Saberi, had been changed with spying and would be put on trial next week. The US has been pressing for her release since she was detained two months ago.

Iran also announced advances for its nuclear program, including new high-speed centrifuges to enrich uranium and the inauguration of a nuclear-fuel production facility. Both developments were described by Western scientists as long expected.

Reaching out by video

In March, President Obama reached out in a Nowruz video message, using the spring "moment of renewal" to call for a "new beginning" with Iran, in which "the old divisions are overcome."

With uncharacteristic speed that signified the importance of Mr. Obama's gesture, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, replied the next day with a lengthy speech, during which he said Iran would reciprocate: "You change, and we will also change our behavior, too."

But as followers chanted "Death to America," Ayatollah Khamenei also listed longstanding grievances and cases of US "arrogance" – even charging that Mr. Obama "insulted Iran" from his first days in office. Khamenei sought both to lay down parameters for the debate in Iran and limit future anger among hard-liners that America's "Great Satan" status might begin to shift.

Iran expected "real" change, Khamenei said, not just "talks with pressure": "They say they have extended their hands towards Iran. If the extended hand has a velvet glove but under it is an iron hand, then this does not have good meaning."

Still, Obama's message was crafted to avoid past pitfalls, which "suggests historical thinking on the part of the Obama administration, and that's very important," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.