As sanctions loom, is Iran sending peace signals to the US?

Beyond the usual anti-American rhetoric, some analysts say that Iran is trying to avoid sanctions and resolve tensions with Washington over its nuclear program.

By , Staff writer

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    Iranian President Ahmadinejad, speaks at a public gathering in the city of Kerman, southeast of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday. Ahmadinejad urged Barack Obama to accept a nuclear fuel swap deal, he said, 'if they (the US and its allies) are truthful when they say they seek cooperation…they should accept this offer.'
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Iran’s triumphant anti-American rhetoric may have hardly changed.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei declared on Monday that countries around the world “thirst” for Iran’s message of “values, humanity and deliverance of nations from the grip of domineering powers.”

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently announced, “Iran is the world’s most powerful country, and they [Western powers] themselves admit this.” He routinely proclaims that the US, West, and its capitalist ways have “collapsed.”

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But behind the usual high-pitched pokes from Tehran, analysts say several Iranian actions signal a serious desire to resolve the nuclear standoff – and perhaps even to find a limited rapprochement with arch-enemy America.

The Iranian olive branches, they cite:

Are those Iranian signals real? And is the United States listening?

Amid the current US push for more UN sanctions, Washington may not perceive these as significant efforts by Iran.

“Here they hope the US would take [Iran's] actions more seriously than words,” says a political analyst in Tehran who asked not be named for security reasons. Iran’s hard-line leadership “may try to pacify this potentially destructive enemy [the US], so that they [Iran's leaders] feel reassured about their future.”

Tehran's leaders are not just concerned about sanctions. On Monday, The New York TImes reported that Gen. David Petraeus last September ordered a “broad expansion of clandestine military activity” in the Middle East that “appears to authorize specific operations in Iran.” And the Iranians haven't forgotten that President George Bush, whose officials routinely spoke of “regime change” in Iran, authorized $400 million in secret funding to weaken the Islamic Republic.

“Once and for all, they [Iran's leaders] want to do away with this existential threat,” says the Tehran analyst. “When you have an enemy which you just can’t ignore, what are you supposed to do? Are you going to take it on in a suicide attack? Or try to appease it, and make it friendly in a face-saving way?”

As viewed from Tehran, positive Iranian steps in recent weeks include Iran’s decision to embrace a nuclear fuel swap deal – a plan to export 1,200 kg of Iran’s homemade low-enriched uranium. Iran rejected a similar plan last October, when it was backed by the US and the UN, but accepted it last week after intense mediation with Turkey and Brazil.

But Washington’s “answer,” as described by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was that the permanent five UN Security Council members had agreed on “strong” sanctions package against Iran.

(Any intended outreach toward the US was not extended to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who on Wednesday came under strong personal attack from Mr. Ahmadinejad for Moscow’s support for further sanctions against Iran.

“Today it has become very difficult to explain Mr. Medvedev’s behavior to our people,” said Ahmadinejad. “We hope Russian officials will pay attention, make amends, and not make Iranians put them in the line of their historic enemies.”

The Kremlin reacted angrily: “Any unpredictability, political extremism, lack of transparency or inconsistency in decision-making…is unacceptable for Russia,” foreign policy advisor Sergei Prikhodko said in a statement. “No one has ever managed to retain their authority through political demagoguery.”)

Another positive step toward the US was Iran's “humanitarian” decision to give visas to the mothers of three Americans imprisoned in Tehran, who visited earlier this week. The American families and US officials say the three are innocent hikers who strayed across the border from Iraq; Iran’s intelligence chief calls them spies that can be exchanged for several Iranians in American custody.

Also on the list of steps that Iran sees as positive: Mr. Ahmadinejad’s presence in New York at the opening of the NPT conference earlier this month. Though he accused the US of being a global “nuclear criminal,” he also spoke well of Americans. During an ABC-TV interview, he wished the audience “a life filled with health, and joy.” He said: “We’re also friends of the American people.”

US officials did not hide their unhappiness with Ahmadinejad’s last minute decision to take part. But Tehran’s view was that the president “rushing to the States every now and then giving an olive branch to the American people” should have been welcome, says the analyst.

Still, those actions were accompanied by two sets of large-scale Iranian military exercises, and little discernable let-up in anti-US rhetoric from other senior Iranians.

Search for a path out of US cross hairs

“Deep down there seems to be a consensus – at least within the [ruling] system – that they should [work to resolve] the nuclear issue,” says an Iranian political science professor who recently left Iran and asked not be further identified.

“On the US, there is still disagreement among players,” says the professor. “But I think Ayatollah Khamenei has pretty much accepted [it] and given his blessing to a very modest rapprochement or reach out to the US. But the game might change, [and] you can’t expect this will go through.”

The debate in Tehran has been about current risks to the Islamic Republic, and how to ease them. Internally, politics were thrown into chaos after an election last June that officially granted a second term to Ahmadinejad – along with a coterie of fellow neo-conservatives and supportive hard-line Revolutionary Guard commanders.

Weeks of protest over what was widely seen as a fraudulent election left scores if not hundreds dead, and thousands of opposition supporters behind bars. The violence also caused divisions within Iran’s leadership that meant critical strategic decisions – such as those about Iran’s nuclear program, or any thaw with the US – were difficult to make and to abide by.

But government repression has largely succeeded in sweeping deep-seated unhappiness from public view, and last February the regime declared victory over the opposition Green Movement.

The “case has been made to everybody [in the ruling elite] that these are dangerous times, you have to play it carefully,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii. One former senior Iranian diplomat close to Khamenei, she notes, wrote that “there is no time to play politics with this and the next few months are going to be a period of very intense negotiations.”

The outcome will depend not just on Washington’s response, but also on Iran’s fundamental calculations.

Divided leadership priorities

“I’ve been told that Mr. Ahmadinejad doesn’t want to solve the nuclear file, but wants to solve the Iran-America problem. And Khamenei is the opposite: he wants to solve the nuclear file, and doesn’t want to do the US-Iran relationship,” says Farhi, of her sources in Tehran.

“There’s a very clear worry [that] if you improve relations with the United States, then the kind of forces that come with integration will ultimately undermine the Islamic Republic. That fear is there; that fear in many ways is justified,” says Farhi.

The result is that two middle positions are “struggling for ascendance in Iran,” she adds. One position would ensure the Iranian moves are purely tactical, to ease the immediate threat of sanctions – or a military strike – from America or its allies, such as Israel.

The other position calls for “balance” but “not becoming friends,” says Farhi, and aims to achieve a “larger strategic objective of placating the US, and turning animosity to [a] neutral relationship.”

Speaking on Wednesday in Iran’s southeast pistachio heartland of Kerman, Ahmadinejad told Washington that the nuclear swap deal is a chance that should not be missed.

“If they (the US and its allies) are truthful when they say they seek cooperation…they should accept this offer,” the Iranian president said. “Mr. Obama must know that this proposal is a historic opportunity… (Obama should) know that if this opportunity is lost, I doubt the Iranian nation will give a new chance to this gentleman in the future.”

Iran's leaders "have realized that they cannot win a war fought on two fronts,” says an Iranian journalist in Tehran who asked not to be named. “They know that if they have the international scene covered, they can pretty much get away with anything domestically.”

The result? “They do actually want to mend ties with the US, at least for the short term – if not mend, at least keep it from escalating,” says the journalist. “They need to bring calm to the international front, so they can fight the domestic front with more ease.”

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