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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.

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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.

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(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.