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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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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.

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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.”