From Iran's hard-liners, tough talk – but pragmatism as well

Positions that suggest little flexibility may simply be a strong opening bid by those who have the ear of Iran's leaders.

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP
Iran: President Ahmadinejad spoke under images of Khomenei and supreme leader Khamenei last week.

Senior conservatives in Iran are raising the bar for US-Iran engagement, reinforcing positions that leave little room for compromise as the Obama administration searches for ways to talk to the Islamic Republic.

After 30 years of high-octane animosity, such voices appear to rule out change. But analysts say they may reflect a maximalist opening bid, as Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei – the man who will make the final decision on any US ties – weighs the advice.

Among those reaching the ear of the leader is Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, who is also an official representative of Ayatollah Khamenei. He draws a grim conclusion from past American actions against Iran, beginning with the CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953 to the US Navy downing of an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988, which killed all 290 on board.

"After that, [the US] would create a new problem every day until now, when they put their hands on the nuclear issue," says Mr. Shariatmadari in an interview. "This is an excuse. We say they will find another thing [to accuse us of]. With all this, the US has been an enemy of ours, so there exists no room for friendship."

Shariatmadari's unwavering views prompted one commentator to label him Iran's Rush Limbaugh. But analysts say that Khamenei has often acted pragmatically to preserve his country's Islamic system. He has authorized Iranian assistance to the US in the past, for example, most recently in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

Indeed, Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan, said this week on a visit to the war-torn nation that it was "absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan," and that Iran had "a legitimate role to play in this region" – comments certain to be well received in Tehran.

On the Iran side, a more pragmatic voice comes from Ali Larijani, the conservative parliamentary speaker who is close to Khamenei. "In the past, the United States has violated Iranian rights," the former nuclear negotiator said on Saturday in Tehran. "It has to change its attitude regarding the Iranian people. [It] has to play chess, not box."

The worst scenario are these hardline voices to the leader," says a veteran observer. "Some believe Iran has never been more strong, and Iran's enemies have never been more weak, so now is not the time to compromise."

"Delusions are in fashion," adds this person, noting that after launching its own satellite this month – a feat that put Iran into a club of just nine nations – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Iran "officially" a superpower. "[Ahmadinejad] is reflecting that sentiment. You are at your [peak], and when you are at your best, you demand, you even intimidate."

Mr. Ahmadinejad has listed several conditions for talks, including US acceptance of Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran vows is solely for peaceful purposes, acceptance of it as a regional power, and an apology for past "imperial" behavior. But the archconservative has also spoken in friendly terms of "dialogue" with the US.

"What have we not done to have relations with the US?" asks Ahmad Tavakoli, the influential conservative head of the Parliamentary Research Center. "Our president sent a letter, invited US scholars. He asked for a debate [with former President George Bush]. We are always trying to have relations, but not with imperialism."

"Mutual respect" is key, says Mr. Tavakoli, though he acknowledges he "would not be happy" if roles were reversed and 10,000 Americans took to the streets in Washington to chant "Death to Iran."

"We didn't do anything against the people of the US. We never launched a coup. We never shot down their plane. We never blocked their wealth. We never supported a war against them," says Tavakoli. "So when we say [Death to America] we almost have a right to say this. But when we speak of the people of America, we honor them."

These conservatives argue that US actions against Iran are facts, while countercharges from Washington – of Iran's role in 1983 attacks on US Marines and the US Embassy in Lebanon, for example, and a hand in the 1996 destruction of a US military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia – are "accusations."

Current events also color the picture. The muted US reaction to Israel's offensive in Gaza and to its high Palestinian death toll was a test that Iran's right wing says President Obama failed, though he was not yet in office. Shariatmadari has two maps of Israel and Palestine on his wall, one covered with arrows showing Israeli military moves.

"Over Gaza, a lot of people were unhappy; in Britain, 100,000 people protested," he says. "Mr. Obama did not take any stance on this or condemn [it]. The people of the world see what is happening, and see Mr. Obama's silence, [so] how can they expect any change?"

The leader's representative linked the fate of the US women's badminton team – which Iran invited to a tournament starting Feb. 6, and which flew to Dubai only to be told its visas weren't ready – to Gaza.

Iranian spokesmen claimed that there was not time to process the team's visas. Iranian sources say Ahmadinejad was keen for the visit, but suggest the US announcement of it was earlier than had been agreed, causing a spike in US media interest that would have been hard to control.

This was the first such occasion under Obama, and was seen on both sides as an initial confidence-building measure.

Still, Shariatmadari says Gaza complicated any shuttlecock diplomacy. "With what happened in Gaza and no US [censure], if the badminton team had come, this would have been a desecration of [Palestinian] blood," he says.

Tehran realizes the US is unlikely to slacken support for Israel, analysts here say. Iran, likewise, does not expect to stop supporting Hezbollah or Hamas. "They accuse us of supporting terrorism and mention … Hezbollah in Lebanon and the resistance in Gaza," former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV. "Are these terrorists? These are oppressed people who are resisting."

The US "committed all these crimes in Iraq, spied for the former ... regime, and killed many" Iraqis, said Mr. Rafsanjani, according to a translation. "Are we or they the terrorists?"

Iran and the US say they are watchingfor positive signs, but expect the other to change first – or cave in. And Shariatmadari says close ties are no panacea. "Sanctions have caused some damage. But the price they want us to pay to get rid of sanctions is higher than the damage," he says. "Iran cut ties [with the US], and even so reached space and nuclear technology, and more power in the region."

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