Expectations soared in Iran with the election of President Barack Obama. He promised to meet Iranian leaders without preconditions, in a fresh American bid to engage Iran and end 30 years of mutual hostility. And he was not President Bush.
But even as Mr. Obama has vowed to extend America's hand in friendship if Iran "unclenched its fist," Iranians say other US signals raise doubts that real change is coming.
From Obama's choice of US officials who have expressed hawkish views on Iran in the past to continued use of some Bush-era language – such as the assumption that Iran harbors a nuclear-weapons program – officials and analysts in Tehran say suspicion remains about American motives.
A new Iran strategy topped the agenda at a meeting in Germany on Wednesday between a senior US diplomat and counterparts from Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday warned Iran of "consequences" if it did not comply with UN Security Council demands to suspend sensitive nuclear work.
"These are not positive signs, they are posturing; they are speaking about tactics, not a change of strategy," says Seyed Mohammad Marandi, head of North American studies at the University of Tehran, who is a dual US-Iran citizen. Iranian leaders "are willing to give Obama a chance. [But] the first move in the eyes of Iranians is not talks but a change of substance, to change the demonization."
Iran questions Obama's outreach
Iran has its own demonization issues, after three decades of fiery anti-Americanism encapsulated in the regular chant "Death to America!" Questioning Obama's outreach last week, Iran's arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered his own laundry list of Iranian grievances that stretched back 56 years.
"We have not seen a new outlook yet – there is still the 'big stick and the big carrot,' which is not honoring the Iranian people," Ali Larijani, Iran's speaker of Parliament and former top nuclear negotiator, said this week. "If there is a new way [from the US], someone should clearly state that new way."
Obama's silence on "atrocities" committed by Israel in Gaza, Mr. Larijani said – even though Obama was still president-elect during the 22-day conflict that left more than 1,330 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead – was a missed chance for a new stance. During protests about Gaza outside Western embassies in Tehran last month, demonstrators burned pictures of Obama.
Iran was disappointed, Larijani said, "but we have not lost hope" that the US-Iran relationship can improve.
The Obama administration is conducting a comprehensive review of Iran policy that has for years been defined by inclusion in Mr. Bush's "axis of evil," by regular hints at regime change, and by threats of military action to stop Iran's nuclear program.
"Our viewpoint is, the US strategy to Iran has not changed, but the tactics have changed," says Hamidreza Taraghi, a conservative politician. "When the US says to open your fist, our fist has always been in defense. It's the US that has always had its fist clenched."
Iran wary of hawkish diplomacy
Officials in Iran and Western diplomats have been surprised by Obama's picks for "tough and direct" talks with Iran.
As a presidential candidate last year, Mrs. Clinton said the US could "totally obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons. Obama at the time accused her of "Bush-style cowboy diplomacy." Iran lodged a formal protest at the United Nations.
The Obama administration announced this week that it will retain Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department official who also sparked complaints from Iran when, working for Bush, he spearheaded US efforts to convince international banks as well as shipping and insurance companies to stop all dealings with Iran.
But it is Obama's expected pick to handle the Iran portfolio – former Mideast envoy Dennis Ross – that has raised most questions in Tehran. Though not officially announced, diplomats say the appointment is all but certain. In Iran, Mr. Ross has been vilified as too hawkish and too close to Israel and pro-Israel lobbies in the US to be effective.
Iran's hard-line Kayhan newspaper called Ross, who is Jewish, a "pioneer of the American-Zionist lobby," whose pick would be an "insult."
When Ross was Mideast envoy, Kayhan said, US policy was "not one millimeter different from Israeli policy."
"There is no doubt they are all going to look at Ross as an Israeli proxy," says one Western diplomat.
"Of course the policy is more important than the personality," says Sadegh Kharazi, a former ambassador to Paris, who helped draft a secret 2003 Iranian offer to Washington to discuss all issues from terrorism to nuclear programs.
A Ross appointment would be "dangerous" and amounts to "shooting the confidence building with the Iranians," says Mr. Kharazi, adding that Iranian officials will be reluctant to deal with Ross. "It shows that the Americans appointed Dennis Ross by the eyes of the Israelis. It means flying to Tehran by the connecting flight via Tel Aviv. Iranians are not happy [about] this."
Iran sees America's ironclad commitment to Israel as a primary source of insecurity, just as Iran says the US military presence destabilizes the region.
"It seems these people are not capable of having fundamental change in the US-Iran relationship," says Taraghi. Any US envoy "should be able to give the president of the United States a better understanding of the events of the Islamic Republic.... The Zionists should not be able to affect his decisions, or [they] will give Obama the wrong perspective."