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Is Iran prepared to undo 30 years of anti-Americanism?

As Obama spells out aims to engage with Iran, the Islamic Republic debates whether to step away from decades of hatred for the 'Great Satan.'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 2009

Father of the revolution: An Iranian man held a poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Jan. 31 at a gathering south of Tehran.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Tehran, Iran

"On that day when the United States of America will praise us, we should mourn," said Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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His words so captured the uncompromising anti-American ideology here that they were painted like a billboard across the old US Embassy wall in Tehran, standing for years as a message of defiance to the West.

Today the quote is gone, recently painted over as if to signify a softening of Iran's hard-line rhetoric. But as President Obama spells out his wish to engage with Iran, is the Islamic Republic – which marks its 30th anniversary next week – really ready to set aside decades of official hatred for the "Great Satan"?

That is the debate now swirling across Iran, where leaders have been sending mixed signals as they anticipate an unprecedented public effort by Washington to reach out to its archrival.

[This is Part 2 in a two-part package on Iran's view of America under Obama. To read Part 1, 'Iranians wary of Obama's approach,' click here.]

Call for global respect

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Thursday called for a new level of global respect: "Bullying powers should learn how to speak correctly and be polite so Iran's cultured and peace-loving people listen to them," he told a rally in the northeast city of Mashad. "Iranians are logical people … and welcome anyone who offers a solution to problems of the world."

Analysts agree that only Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei can make a final decision on US ties – and justify it to ideologues that have despised America for a generation.

But not all agree that Ayatollah Khamenei can bring himself to do away with such a useful enemy. Last November he said not a day had passed "in which America has had good intentions toward Iran," and that the US-Iran problem is "like a matter of life and death."

"The Leader is a very rational person [and] wants to control the country and respond to reality," says Amir Mohebian, a conservative editor and analyst. "When the US sends a hard signal, the Supreme Leader is very hard. If the US sends a soft signal, he is very soft. We balance ourselves with our partner."

While Iran boasts the most pro-American population in the region, any substantive talks with the US are a big step for a regime that still chants "Death to America" at rallies.

"Some people think this is the time to solve the problem with the US in a balanced way," says Mr. Mohebian. "But others think the hostility against the US after 30 years is a main element of our identity, and if we solve it we will dissolve ourselves."

Mixed signals from Tehran

The mixed signals from Tehran can bolster either view. The firebrand Mr. Ahmadinejad wrote an unprecedented note of congratulations to Mr. Obama just days after the US election, noting high expectations for change. Despite fierce anti-Western rhetoric and verbal attacks against the US, Ahmadinejad has reached out more than any of his predecessors, telling Americans the US could be a "great friend" of Iran.

But this week an official representative of Khamenei said that confronting the "arrogant policies" of the US and Israel were "red lines" for Iran.

"Opposing the Zionist regime and defending oppressed people are among the pillars of the Islamic revolution and Iran and America's relationship will not change because of Obama taking office," said cleric Ali Maboudi, in a Fars News Agency report quoted by Reuters.

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