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.'
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American officials are deciding how to approach Iran – and when, considering Ahmadinejad is up for reelection in June – to maximize chances of success on issues from Iran's nuclear ambitions to its regional role. The US has long labeled Iran the "premier state sponsor of terror" for supporting Hezbollah and Hamas and accused it of causing US deaths in Iraq by supporting Shiite militias.Skip to next paragraph
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Past efforts have failed, and numerous secret contacts yielded little. Significantly, analysts say Iran still smarts from being included in President Bush's "axis of evil," after giving critical help to the US during and after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
"The main issue here is 'What will be the answer?' " says a Western diplomat in Tehran. "The Iranians are very confused. The Americans are still discussing the best strategy, but they know what they want. Here, I am not so sure. Iran has been a revolutionary state for 30 years and needs a crisis, an enemy to survive.
"If the archfoe is not the archfoe, then what?" asks the diplomat. "If Obama were to officially make a request tomorrow, there would be shock here…. They want [to engage] – it's clear – but the question is how to do this without losing face."
Already Ahmadinejad has broken the anti-US taboo and analysts say Iran now has certain expectations in return. State Department officials have been drafting letters to break the ice, and are debating whether the US should reach out before Iran's election. But such a move could give Ahmadinejad a boost over challengers like former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who won elections in 1997 and 2001 by a landslide but was still unable to break the US-Iran deadlock.
Window of opportunity before Iranian elections
In Iran, some argue that if the US does not send a message before the Iran election, it will show a US preference in the vote and be seen as meddling. Others point out that only Ahmadinejad has the rightwing gravitas to reassure hard-liners.
A swift American move may produce better results, says Mohebian, with a "short, polite" letter to Ahmadinejad from Obama, thanking him for his note and "hoping to make a new reality."
"But the main letter – to solve the problems – should be sent to the Leader," says Mohebian. This letter should acknowledge past historical grievances – such as the CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953 – and suggest: "It's better to forget the past. The Islamic Republic is a reality. We want a new future," he says.
"After that you will see the situation change – not immediately, but gradually over two years," says Mohebian. During that time, both sides would have to commit to new policies. Khamenei could portray the change as one of strength, not weakness, he says.
But is such a scenario possible? Even those close to ruling circles caution that Iran's reaction will depend upon US actions. And they can't predict how far the Islamic system is willing to budge.
"The first thing Iranian leaders need is to be convinced the US is not after regime change," says a veteran analyst in Tehran. The regime "wants" to engage, though "only someone deep in the religious establishment can do it and Ahmadinejad has the credentials. But he also must keep his revolutionary image and rhetoric."
"I would really like reformists to rule the country – it's better," says this analyst. "But in these crucial issues, they will be crippled if they try rapprochement…. If strange things happen and Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are doing it, they can't stop [hard-line reaction], but can convince them to go along."
Yet there is plenty of room for doubt, says a reformist political scientist in Tehran: "They rule the country based on their opposition to the US. If they change there is no basis for their legitimacy," he says. "Ahmadinejad is very, very interested in resuming negotiations with the US, but the leader does not allow it [because] anyone who does that will be a big hero in Iran."
• Part 2 of two. Yesterday: Iranians remain wary of Obama's approach.