Iran Offers Cool Response To Obama's Overtures

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad i i

hide captionDuring a speech Jan. 28 in Kermanshah, Iran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that U.S. President Barack Obama would have to do more than talk in order to improve contentiousness U.S.-Iran relations.

Saman Aqvam/AP/ISNA
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

During a speech Jan. 28 in Kermanshah, Iran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that U.S. President Barack Obama would have to do more than talk in order to improve contentiousness U.S.-Iran relations.

Saman Aqvam/AP/ISNA

The United States and Iran already have begun a public dialogue about how to overcome the hostility that has marked their relations for 30 years.

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama said he would reach out a hand to Iran if it "unclenched its fist."

Iran's president wasn't impressed. In a nationally televised speech, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicated that the new American president would have to do more than talk to resolve the problems between the two nations.

Still, many Iranians hope their government will respond to the American overtures.

Since Obama's election, there has been uncertainty — if not outright confusion — among Iran's leaders about what to make of him and how to respond to his offers of more open dialogue. Until now.

Language Of Engagement Rebuffed

On Wednesday, Iran's President Ahmadinejad made it clear that as far as he was concerned, the U.S. would have to remove the perceived threat to his nation before Iran could believe the new U.S. president was serious about engagement.

Wherever there is war, Ahmadinejad told a crowd in the western city of Kermanshah, it is either because of America's military presence or America's improper interference. When they say the policy is going to change, Ahmadinejad said, it means they should remove their military forces and take them to their own borders.

Ahmadinejad went on to enumerate a well-known list of grievances that Iran has with the U.S. The U.S. will have to apologize for the CIA-organized coup that put the Shah of Iran back in power in 1953, for backing Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and much more, Ahmadinejad said.

Actually in 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did apologize for the 1953 U.S.-backed coup and for supporting Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran.

Ahmadinejad all but overlooked the language of engagement and dialogue that President Obama has used this week.

'Demonization' Of Iran

Conservative supporters of Ahmadinejad were quick to pick up on what they see as the negative comments coming from Washington, especially the all-too-familiar refrain heard here during the past eight years — "all options are on the table" — in connection with Iran's nuclear program.

Mohammed Marandi is a conservative professor of American studies at Tehran University, who argues that leaders in the U.S. must stop demonizing Iran.

"People in Iran were hoping that now that Bush has gone, there may be an opportunity for change. But I think as long as the demonization of Iran continues and threats are made, I don't think that the Iranians will believe that the United States government is really looking for real change with regard to the Middle East and Iran in particular," he says.

Political Change In Iran May Lie Ahead

Within the reformist camp, there is more openness to dialogue with the U.S. But first, says Issa Saharkhiz, a reform-oriented journalist who is banned from publishing in the country, political change must come to Iran as well.

"I think it depends on the next election and who will win in that election," he says.

Ahmadinejad faces re-election in June, and the presidential campaign is only now getting under way. His re-election is not a foregone conclusion because the economy has been damaged by his populist policies. Plus the price of oil has dropped dramatically, and Western financial sanctions have begun to bite.

These are all good reasons why Iran might want to engage with the U.S., say the reformers — and not just the reformers.

Some conservatives have soured on Ahmadinejad as well. Amir Mohebian, a conservative political analyst, would like to see Iran respond to the new American president.

"It makes a new opportunity for the United States, I think, but the Muslim countries and especially Iran, want to see new steps from Mr. Obama," he says.

Possible Appeal To Supreme Leader

Mohebian used to support the Ahmadinejad government, but now he has turned critical of its economic and foreign policies. He suggests one step Obama might take is to write personally to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"Mr. Obama can say in this letter to the supreme leader that in our relations, we have some obstacles, and ... we can make a bridge on this gap for the good future. I think after this kind of writing a letter to the supreme leader, the situation is ready for the future," he says.

There have been reports that President Obama is considering such a step, but Thursday the White House said no firm decision has been made yet on just how to approach Iran.

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