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The United States and Iran are talking about how to move forward after a hostile relationship for over 30 years. President Obama said he'll reach out a hand to Iran if, in his words, that country unclenches its fist. Iran's president was not impressed. In a nationally televised speech, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested that the new American president would have to do more than talk. Still, many Iranians hope that their government will respond to American overtures. NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Tehran.
MIKE SHUSTER: Since the election of Barack Obama, 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. 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.
President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (President, Iran): (Arabic Spoken)
SHUSTER: 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 United States. The U.S. will have to apologize for the CIA-organized coup that put the Shah of Iran back in power in 1953 and apologize for backing Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and much more. Ahmadinejad all but overlooked the language of engagement and dialogue that President Obama has used this week.
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 controversial 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.
Professor MOHAMMED MARANDI (English Literature, Tehran University): 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.
SHUSTER: 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 here, political change must come to Iran as well.
Mr. ISSA SAHARKHIZ (Journalist, Iran): I think it depends on the next election and who will win in that election.
SHUSTER: 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. All good reasons why Iran might want to engage with the U.S., say the reformers and not just the reformers. Some conservatives as well have soured on Ahmadinejad. Amir Mohebian, a conservative political analyst, would like to see Iran respond to the new American president.
Mr. AMIR MOHEBIAN (Political Analyst, Iran): It makes a new opportunity for United States, I think, but the Muslim countries, and especially Iran, wants to see new steps from Mr. Obama.
SHUSTER: Mohebian used to support the Ahmadinejad government, but now he has turned quite critical of its economic and foreign policies. He suggests one step Mr. Obama might take is to write personally to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. MOHEBIAN: Mr. Obama can say in this letter to the supreme leader that in our relation, we have some obstacles, and we both - 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.
SHUSTER: There have been reports that President Obama is considering such a step, but yesterday, the White House said no firm decision has been made yet on just how to approach Iran. Mike Shuster, NPR News Tehran.
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