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Iranians wary of Obama's approach

Despite President Obama's offer to extend a hand if Iran 'unclenched its fist,' Iranian officials say his choice of diplomats calls into question his commitment to change.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 2009

Don't tread on me? An Iranian demonstrator walked past placards of President Obama and former President Bush before setting them on fire in Tehran last month.

Vahid Salemi/AP


Tehran, Iran

Expectations soared in Iran with the election of President Barack Obama. He promised to meet Iranian leaders without preconditions, in a fresh American bid to engage Iran and end 30 years of mutual hostility. And he was not President Bush.

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But even as Mr. Obama has vowed to extend America's hand in friendship if Iran "unclenched its fist," Iranians say other US signals raise doubts that real change is coming.

From Obama's choice of US officials who have expressed hawkish views on Iran in the past to continued use of some Bush-era language – such as the assumption that Iran harbors a nuclear-weapons program – officials and analysts in Tehran say suspicion remains about American motives.

A new Iran strategy topped the agenda at a meeting in Germany on Wednesday between a senior US diplomat and counterparts from Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday warned Iran of "consequences" if it did not comply with UN Security Council demands to suspend sensitive nuclear work.

"These are not positive signs, they are posturing; they are speaking about tactics, not a change of strategy," says Seyed Mohammad Marandi, head of North American studies at the University of Tehran, who is a dual US-Iran citizen. Iranian leaders "are willing to give Obama a chance. [But] the first move in the eyes of Iranians is not talks but a change of substance, to change the demonization."


This is Part 1 in a two-part package. To read Part 2, 'Is Iran prepared to undo 30 years of anti-Americanism,' click here

Iran questions Obama's outreach

Iran has its own demonization issues, after three decades of fiery anti-Americanism encapsulated in the regular chant "Death to America!" Questioning Obama's outreach last week, Iran's arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered his own laundry list of Iranian grievances that stretched back 56 years.

"We have not seen a new outlook yet – there is still the 'big stick and the big carrot,' which is not honoring the Iranian people," Ali Larijani, Iran's speaker of Parliament and former top nuclear negotiator, said this week. "If there is a new way [from the US], someone should clearly state that new way."

Obama's silence on "atrocities" committed by Israel in Gaza, Mr. Larijani said – even though Obama was still president-elect during the 22-day conflict that left more than 1,330 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead – was a missed chance for a new stance. During protests about Gaza outside Western embassies in Tehran last month, demonstrators burned pictures of Obama.

Iran was disappointed, Larijani said, "but we have not lost hope" that the US-Iran relationship can improve.

The Obama administration is conducting a comprehensive review of Iran policy that has for years been defined by inclusion in Mr. Bush's "axis of evil," by regular hints at regime change, and by threats of military action to stop Iran's nuclear program.