Persian New Year to bring U.S.-Iran thaw?

In the past week, mixed progress as a US journalist is charged with spying amidst positive statements from both countries.

As Iranians celebrated the Persian New Year recently, they witnessed the start of indirect talks between Iran and the United States, in what promises to become a highly orchestrated effort to ease three decades of mutual hostility.

Each country is drawing lessons from failed past attempts at détente. They are learning from the mistakes of their respective former leaders, Bill Clinton and Mohamad Khatami, in the late 1990s, and the unbending stance of George W. Bush.

This week has seen mixed progress between the two nations. On Wednesday, in a departure from Bush administration policy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the United States would become a "full participant," not simply an observer, at talks with Iranian officials about the nuclear issue. The talks include the other four permanent members of the UN Security CouncilBritain, China, France, and Russia – as well as Germany.

The same day, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that he welcomed talks with the US if they were based on "honesty, justice, and respect."

But that gesture was marred by the announcement that a detained American journalist, Roxana Saberi, had been changed with spying and would be put on trial next week. The US has been pressing for her release since she was detained two months ago.

Iran also announced advances for its nuclear program, including new high-speed centrifuges to enrich uranium and the inauguration of a nuclear-fuel production facility. Both developments were described by Western scientists as long expected.

Reaching out by video

In March, President Obama reached out in a Nowruz video message, using the spring "moment of renewal" to call for a "new beginning" with Iran, in which "the old divisions are overcome."

With uncharacteristic speed that signified the importance of Mr. Obama's gesture, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, replied the next day with a lengthy speech, during which he said Iran would reciprocate: "You change, and we will also change our behavior, too."

But as followers chanted "Death to America," Ayatollah Khamenei also listed longstanding grievances and cases of US "arrogance" – even charging that Mr. Obama "insulted Iran" from his first days in office. Khamenei sought both to lay down parameters for the debate in Iran and limit future anger among hard-liners that America's "Great Satan" status might begin to shift.

Iran expected "real" change, Khamenei said, not just "talks with pressure": "They say they have extended their hands towards Iran. If the extended hand has a velvet glove but under it is an iron hand, then this does not have good meaning."

Still, Obama's message was crafted to avoid past pitfalls, which "suggests historical thinking on the part of the Obama administration, and that's very important," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.

By addressing both the people and leaders of Iran, the short message was a departure. The key was "this idea that we are not going to play Iranian leaders against each other, and we are not going to distinguish between the people of Iran and the government," says Ms. Farhi. "The latter was a rejection of the Bush policy, and the former a clear understanding of what was wrong with Clinton's message, which spoke of 'nice' leaders and 'bad' leaders."

Reconciliation lessons from 1997

The most instructive history comes from the exchange that began in 1997, after Mr. Khatami was elected president by a landslide on promises of "reform" and ending Iran's isolation. The reconciliation dance began, and both sides appeared intent on progress. Clinton welcomed Khatami's win, saying he had "never been pleased" by the US-Iran divide, and spoke of Iranians as a "very great people."

Khatami reciprocated, speaking months later of his "great respect" for Americans and calling for a "thoughtful dialogue." Clinton welcomed the words the next day, saying he would like "nothing better" than talks – which would include terrorism and "violent attacks on the peace process."

The relative rhetorical warmth continued for months, even as hard-line newspapers and critics accused Khatami of undermining a pillar of the revolution. Even Khamenei spoke out during a Friday prayer sermon, dismissing reports of a "tendency" to reconcile with America.

Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader since 1989, resented the Clinton-era eagerness to praise only elected officials like Khatami while criticizing those in far more powerful unelected posts such as his.

"The most important lesson [from the Clinton era] is treating Iran in its totality, and accepting that internal dynamics … cannot be manipulated in direct ways by the United States," says Farhi.

Obama hit notes that indicated a new understanding of Iran in the White House: He mentioned the "Islamic Republic of Iran" (providing de facto recognition of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution for the first time), spoke of engagement "grounded in mutual respect," and minimized chances of regime change – often evoked by Bush-era officials – by noting that this US-Iran process "will not be advanced by threats."

He quoted the revered Persian poet Saadi, expressing the shared humanity of "the children of Adam," and offered New Year greetings in Farsi.

Iran's list of grievances

But it won't be easy to get to real business, as Khamenei's list of grievances against the US is widely shared in Iran.

Iranians, to this day, remember with approbation the words of then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who in 2000 appeared to apologize for the CIA coup that toppled Iran's popular prime minister in 1953. But further along in the same speech, she railed against the "reality" of Iran's support for terrorism, its human rights violations, and continuing efforts "to acquire nuclear weapons." If that did not erase the "apology" in the minds of Iran's leaders, then it was her pointed disdain for "unelected hands" that control the regime – a direct slap at Khamenei.

Iran's lesson? That Washington was insincere. A more biting example came in 2001, when Iran shared information to help the US fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic was later instrumental in helping US diplomats form the postwar government, and hoped the cooperation would expand.

But in what today remains a cautionary tale for decisionmakers in Tehran, Iran was labeled by Mr. Bush as part of his Axis of Evil. And beyond the first step of Obama and Khamenei "speaking" to each other, will be subsequent moves.

"The reality is you have a new [US leader] who has talked about change, so the question is, what does that change involve?" asks Farhi. "If it's sticks and carrots, or the change involves more and more robust sticks and carrots, it's not going to go anywhere."

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