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Is Iran ready to improve US ties? Leader's tough talk masks debate.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, continues to pillory US 'arrogance.' But the nuclear deal offers a possible path forward toward greater cooperation, analysts say.

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    Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waved to Muslims during morning prayers for the Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, at the Imam Khomeini grand mosque in Tehran July 18.
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When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered his prayer sermon to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan Saturday, just days after conclusion of the landmark Iran nuclear deal, the hostile rhetoric rang like business as usual.

The supreme leader praised Iranians who chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” decried “evil plots of the enemies” across the Middle East, and said US policies were “180 degrees” opposite those of the Islamic Republic.

“Our policy toward the arrogant government of America will not change in any way despite these negotiations and the document that has been prepared,” Ayatollah Khamenei said, his left hand resting on the barrel of a rifle – a tradition of Iran's main prayer leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution. “They can only see Iran’s surrender in their dreams.” 

Definitive as those remarks from Iran’s highest authority are, they come as speculation grows inside and outside Iran that the nuclear deal could be a catalyst for broader – if limited – US-Iran cooperation between the arch foes on other mutual interests, such as combating the self-described Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Khamenei’s unrelenting rhetoric masks a debate here and even a growing expectation in some quarters that the nuclear deal will ultimately transform Iran’s relations with the outside world, particularly with the US.

“This agreement will be a starting point for Iran to play new roles in the region and the world [which] makes a new responsibility for this country regarding global peace,” says Amir Mohebian, a conservative analyst and editor close to political circles in Iran.

But what about Khamenei, who, just days before the July 14 deal between Iran and six world powers led by the United States, said that Iran’s fight against “arrogance” was “never-ending,” and that the US “is the very epitome of arrogance”?

Assurances from Zarif

Mr. Mohebian suggests it may take some time – and proof that both sides are adhering faithfully to the nuclear deal – for such expressed attitudes to begin to change appreciably.

“The leader does not gamble on certain decisions of the United States and their allies,” he says. “I think the leader is waiting for the permanent result of the agreement. Actually you can’t see the change in behavior [now], but one year after reaching the agreement, and seeing the result of that, you will see that changing behavior will start.”

Top officials from both sides state publicly that the three-plus years of intensive negotiations were strictly about limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions.  But senior US administration officials say that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explicitly told them Iran was ready to discuss thorny regional issues like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran’s rivalry with US ally Saudi Arabia.

“My hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative…. But we’re not counting on it,” US President Barack Obama said after the deal was signed.

“No one suggests that this deal resolves all the threats that Iran poses to its neighbors of the world,” said Mr. Obama. “Moreover, realizing the promise of this deal will require many years.”

Deal 'ends the cold war'?

The challenges are evident already. Even as the UN Security Council on Monday unanimously passed a resolution that codifies aspects of the nuclear deal, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari was quoted in Iranian media as saying that parts of it “have clearly crossed the Islamic Republic’s red lines, especially in Iran’s military capabilities,” and therefore, “we will never accept it.”

Some are more optimistic than others as to the timetable for change. The deal marks “a new paradigm in the world” and “ends the cold war between Iran and the US, and they will come to know each other more realistically,” Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran’s former ambassador to the UN, who is close to the Khamenei family, told the Guardian newspaper.

It was the supreme leader, after all, who called for “heroic flexibility” in 2013, thereby bolstering Iran’s negotiating team while giving them unprecedented support as “sons of the revolution.” 

Hug for an American

That tangled love-hate paradox lies at the heart of decades of mutual US-Iran hostility and efforts to undermine the other, even though Iranians themselves are often described as among the most pro-American populations in the region.

In one small but typical example: During the annual Qods Day rally in Tehran on July 10, chants of “Death to America” rang out repeatedly. Israel, America’s close Middle East ally, was also pilloried and its end predicted in graphic posters and banners.

But when one man asked this reporter where he was from and heard the reply, “America,” he opened his arms and gave a hug. He said he was a government worker.

Iranians often differentiate between their warmth for the American people and their dislike for Washington’s policies, even during events such as Qods Day, which attracts mostly conservative, ideological crowds in cities across Iran to denounce Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

But anti-Americanism and anti-Israeli sentiment have been pillars of Iran’s ideological outlook since 1979. If Khamenei is scathing toward the US in his latest speeches, he is implacable in his hatred for Israel.

In his prayer sermon on Saturday, for example, Khamenei said there was “no injustice worse” than US labeling of the Iran-backed, Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah as “terrorists,” instead of “resistance” forces.

“This is while they support the terrorist child-killing government of Zionism [Israel],” he said.

Getting beyond the grievances

Rhetorically, at least, the distance that still needs to be traveled is significant. But the nuclear agreement offers a possible path forward.

“Of course this [nuclear deal] is a test for both sides, both for Iran as well as the United States, and both sides can show their faithfulness to their commitments,” says Gholam-Ali Haddadadel, a conservative former parliament speaker and presidential candidate who is close to the supreme leader.

“Logically, everything is possible, but practically it seems very difficult,” says Mr. Haddadadel, ticking off Iran’s historical grievances such as the CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953, US support for the pro-West shah and opposition to the revolution, and support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. These and other events have “blurred” the vision of Iranians toward the US, he says. Americans too have a long list of grievances.

If the deal is interpreted by Washington to “give permission for the US to come in and meddle [again], it will never happen,” says Haddadadel.

“If it is thought that this deal is the beginning of a future in which the walls of mistrust between Iran and the US will become lower and lower, this is possible,” he says, “depending upon the behavior of the United States.”

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