From Iran's hard-liners, tough talk – but pragmatism as well
Positions that suggest little flexibility may simply be a strong opening bid by those who have the ear of Iran's leaders.
Senior conservatives in Iran are raising the bar for US-Iran engagement, reinforcing positions that leave little room for compromise as the Obama administration searches for ways to talk to the Islamic Republic.Skip to next paragraph
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After 30 years of high-octane animosity, such voices appear to rule out change. But analysts say they may reflect a maximalist opening bid, as Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei – the man who will make the final decision on any US ties – weighs the advice.
Among those reaching the ear of the leader is Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, who is also an official representative of Ayatollah Khamenei. He draws a grim conclusion from past American actions against Iran, beginning with the CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953 to the US Navy downing of an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988, which killed all 290 on board.
"After that, [the US] would create a new problem every day until now, when they put their hands on the nuclear issue," says Mr. Shariatmadari in an interview. "This is an excuse. We say they will find another thing [to accuse us of]. With all this, the US has been an enemy of ours, so there exists no room for friendship."
Shariatmadari's unwavering views prompted one commentator to label him Iran's Rush Limbaugh. But analysts say that Khamenei has often acted pragmatically to preserve his country's Islamic system. He has authorized Iranian assistance to the US in the past, for example, most recently in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
Indeed, Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan, said this week on a visit to the war-torn nation that it was "absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan," and that Iran had "a legitimate role to play in this region" – comments certain to be well received in Tehran.
On the Iran side, a more pragmatic voice comes from Ali Larijani, the conservative parliamentary speaker who is close to Khamenei. "In the past, the United States has violated Iranian rights," the former nuclear negotiator said on Saturday in Tehran. "It has to change its attitude regarding the Iranian people. [It] has to play chess, not box."
The worst scenario are these hardline voices to the leader," says a veteran observer. "Some believe Iran has never been more strong, and Iran's enemies have never been more weak, so now is not the time to compromise."
"Delusions are in fashion," adds this person, noting that after launching its own satellite this month – a feat that put Iran into a club of just nine nations – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Iran "officially" a superpower. "[Ahmadinejad] is reflecting that sentiment. You are at your [peak], and when you are at your best, you demand, you even intimidate."
Mr. Ahmadinejad has listed several conditions for talks, including US acceptance of Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran vows is solely for peaceful purposes, acceptance of it as a regional power, and an apology for past "imperial" behavior. But the archconservative has also spoken in friendly terms of "dialogue" with the US.
"What have we not done to have relations with the US?" asks Ahmad Tavakoli, the influential conservative head of the Parliamentary Research Center. "Our president sent a letter, invited US scholars. He asked for a debate [with former President George Bush]. We are always trying to have relations, but not with imperialism."