US, Iran standoff grows tenser

Despite rare letter, Washington sees no reason to engage Tehran as the UN considers action.

For 27 years, the rhetorical swordplay between the US and Iran has been unrelenting. Iran portrays its latest thrust in the ongoing row with the West, an unprecedented letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush, as a "new diplomatic opening."

Striking a tough and confident tone and with few conciliatory words, Mr. Ahmadinejad addressed a host of issues, but only touched on atomic energy and provided no new initiatives for ending the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.

Experts say that rather than being any kind of step toward direct dialogue, the letter reveals just how far apart Washington and Tehran remain, with differences magnified by conservative leaderships on both sides that gain more from saber-rattling than peacemaking.

"We should put our ambitions into perspective. The ambition should be trying to avoid a crisis and confrontation, rather than trying to bring about a [US-Iran] rapprochement," says Karim Sadjadpour, analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), now in Washington.

In the letter, Ahmadinejad criticized Mr. Bush's handling of 9/11, the creation of Israel, and drew comparisons between current US threats against Iran and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. He called the war in Iraq a "great tragedy [that] came to engulf both the [US and Iraqi] people."

He also declared the failure of "liberalism and western-style democracy," and said the US is now subject of "an ever-increasing global hatred."

"People around the world are flocking toward ... the Almighty God," he said. "My question for you [Bush] is, 'Do you want to join them?' "

"Ahmadinejad has made it nearly impossible for the US to engage him directly," says Mr. Sadjadpour, referring to the Iranian leader's past remarks that Israel should be "wiped off the map," and doubting events of the holocaust.

"If there is to be any warming of ties ... Iran has got to present a different interlocutor. Ahmadinejad is not the right messenger," he says.

US officials dismissed the 18-page letter, even as Washington this week attempts to rally the UN Security Council around a tough resolution to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions. Tuesday, Ahmadinejad said the letter represents the "words and opinions of the Iranian nation."

The official view in Iran is "optimistic, and [the letter] shows that Ahmadinejad is willing to have a dialogue and interact with the international community," says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, deputy editor of the English-language Iran News in Tehran.

During the "Year of the Prophet" in Iran, the president can both reassure hard-liners that he is doing as the prophet Muhammad did in his day - of writing letters to enemies - and domestically send the message that he is "not a warmonger," says Mr. Bozorgmehr.

"For him it is a win-win situation - what is there to lose?" adds Bozorgmehr. "The media here are considering it a new opportunity to resolve a crisis, but [the letter] only seems to be a compilation of grudges against the West and US we have heard before."

"This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Associated Press on Monday. "There's nothing in here that would suggest that we're on any different course than we were before we got the letter."

The US severed ties with Iran after militants stormed the US Embassy in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of that revolution, dubbed American the "Great Satan." The burning of US flags and chants of "Death to America" have been staple fare for years at government- sanctioned rallies.

In 2002, Bush declared Iran part of an "axis of evil," and its clerical rulers are often mentioned in Washington circles as being the "next" target for US-engineered regime change. The Bush administration in February asked Congress for an additional $75 million for "democracy promotion" in Iran.

The historic hostility and suspicion have come to a head over the nuclear issue. Washington accuses Tehran of using a peaceful power program as a cover for acquiring nuclear weapons, and has not ruled out military action. Iran doubts whether any step it takes can convince the West of peaceful intent, or forestall US attempts at regime change.

"This is the first time you have a conservative government in Iran, that is across the board in favor of talking to the US," says Mohammad Hadi Semati, a political scientist at Tehran University, now a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "But Washington and Tehran are now on two different planes. In the last 27 years, when Washington was ready [to talk], Tehran has not been ready. Now Iran is ready, and Washington is not."

"Both sides have cornered themselves" by their uncompromising rhetoric, says Mr. Semati. "It is framed: 'Either the US has to back-off, or Iran has to back-off, or the middle road is war. There is no other way.' "

The result, Semati adds, "leaves very little room for creative diplomacy."

Such diplomacy might bring the US and Iran to the table, as the US has with North Korea - by offering security guarantees and other incentives in exchange for limiting nuclear programs. But the North Korean "model" has a negative aspect, too, experts say. Pressure to halt nuclear work eventually led North Korea to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and build bombs.

In Iran's case, mutual mistrust runs just as deep.

For Iran, the nuclear issue is "simply a pretext for regime change," says Sadjadpour of ICG. "They believe that if they are going to compromise, it's not going to get them out of trouble, but be seen as a sign of weakness [that will] invite further pressure."

Likewise, the US believes "Iran's intentions are not peaceful, and they should not reward bad behavior," says Sadjadpour. "So Iran needs to compromise unequivocally, not based on whatever incentives the US can offer."

Both the US and Europeans are in a further dilemma, he adds. While offering nothing to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, whose mantra was a "dialogue of civilizations," reaching out to this president "sends the message to Tehran that a belligerent foreign policy reaps rewards."

The leap to talks would not be so great, considering that Iranians are perhaps the most pro-US population in the Middle East. A poll commissioned by a parliamentary committee in 2002 showed that 75 percent of Iranians favored renewing ties with the US. When the results were leaked to the press, one pollster working with an American firm was jailed on charges of selling confidential information to an "enemy state."

The Bush administration late last year authorized the US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to speak to Iranian officials in meetings that both sides say would be limited only to Iraq issues.

"The fact is that the publicity about [Ahmadinejad's letter] is more important than the content," says Semati at the Wilson Center. "They are trying, in the public domain, to say 'We are using every tool to convince the Americans - and the world - that we want to talk, and want to solve these differences by diplomacy.' "

Iranian newspapers Tuesday showed both presidents on their front pages, sometimes juxtaposed to imply that Bush was attentively reading the Iranian missive.

"[Ahmadinejad] wanted to get himself on the stage, and take control of the issues," adds Semati. "He wants to be a player."

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