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U.S.-IRAN: The More Things Change…

Analysis by Farideh Farhi*

HONOLULU, Hawai'i, Feb 5 2009 (IPS) - “We are not satisfied with [U.S. President Barack] Obama’s actions since they have not been in line with claims of change – although we are not without hope either.”

These words, uttered Monday in a press conference by Iran’s Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, encapsulate Tehran’s wait-and-see attitude towards the Obama administration and its reported policy review regarding the Islamic Republic. While Iranian officials are willing to entertain the possibility of significant change in U.S. foreign policy, they are increasingly preparing for it not to happen.

Larijani’s words are instructive. Calling the conflict between the United States and Iran “serious and not for fun” and not subject to resolution through mere “gestures”, he suggested that the United States should have a “precise plan to see what the demands of the Iranian people are.”

Yet, reflecting on the chance of such a thing happening, he said, “I think it is rather far-fetched to think that it would occur.”

That Tehran bases its change of policies on a fundamental change of attitude in Washington was also on display when it refused to extend visas to the U.S. women’s badminton team to participate in the Fajr Badminton Tournament in Tehran.

The team had flown to Dubai with full expectation of being extended visas. However, according to the Foreign Ministry’s Spokesman Hassan Qashqavi, the reason for denial was simple: “In the same way the Americans do it in relation to the issuance of visas to Iranians, this issue was in need of time and given the processing time needed, issuance of visas was not possible.”

It should not be a surprise that Tehran’s sudden insistence on due process came immediately after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “President Obama has signaled his intention to support tough and direct diplomacy with Iran, but if Iran does not comply with United Nations Security Council and IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] mandates, there must be consequences.”

Tehran followed the U.S. presidential campaign closely as President-Elect Obama repeatedly made clear his intention to engage in direct talks without first demanding a suspension of the Iranian uranium enrichment programme. However, lack of clarity about the purpose of talks left Iranian leaders wondering whether Obama will embark upon a robust version of the so-called carrots and sticks approach pursued by the George W. Bush administration or entertain comprehensive diplomatic engagement.

The uncertainly about Obama’s intentions made Tehran take a Janus-faced approach. It welcomed his presidency and message of change, as reflected in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s congratulatory letter sent to Obama – a first in the post-revolutionary era.

The diplomatic apparatus has also been quite explicit that it takes the new president’s commitment to change seriously and inclusive of Iran. In the words of Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, “If Mr. Barack Obama remains committed to his motto, we will be hopeful that there is a real change in America.”

But both official and public discourse in Iran is increasingly showing weariness that Obama’s change will essentially mean more of the same. Some inside Iran, such as the editors at the hard-line Kayhan daily newspaper, have argued that Obama’s plan for Iran is already clear and includes “planned reduction of global oil prices, escalation of economic pressure on Iran, and reliance on political divisions inside to weaken Iran’s nuclear resolve.”

On the official front, a surprisingly unified and threatening public posture is emerging, suggesting the possibility that Obama’s new policy may be the old one repackaged. The unity of response is reflected in the words of three of Iran’s most important leaders: Parliament speaker Larijani, Expediency Council and Council of Experts chair Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

All three leaders have reacted harshly to Obama’s use of the carrots and sticks imagery as a way to solve Iran’s problem. Larijani and Rafsanjani have announced that Iran will not be interested in serious talks if the U.S. approach to Iran does not change, while Ayatollah Khamenei has reiterated his expectation that U.S. hostility will continue unabated.

As such, the space between a hard-line rejectionist position regarding any negotiation with the United States and the possibility of meaningful conversation if there are some basic changes in the U.S. posture towards Iran’s role in the region is where the contemporary Iranian conversation about Obama’s foreign policy rests.

On the question of what kind of conversation Iran seeks, Larijani has been the clearest – identifying Obama’s carrots and sticks language as a reflection of U.S. “savagery” and “cowboy” foreign policy in January. According to Larijani, the U.S. does not yet understand that Iran does not need U.S. acknowledgment of its nuclear energy programme.

Instead of “logical interaction based on international law, it carries a stick and wants to force Iran to do what it wants. If the Americans think they can approach Iran instrumentally through tactical change, they are wrong.” A “strategic conversation”, he pointed out, is a different matter.

Larijani’s language was harsh, particularly since it was used by an official considered to be a pragmatic conservative in the current Iranian political scene. But even harsher were the words uttered by Iran’s pre-eminent pragmatist or moderate: former president Rafsanjani.

In his sermon on Dec. 8 on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, he expressed real disappointment in Obama and went on to say that Iran “neither wants America’s incentives nor its punishment”. Reminding his audience of the Iran-Contra Affair, he asserted that the U.S. has always been the country hankering after Iran: “For 30 years you always wanted to talk and we didn’t, and now you want to place even heavier conditions for talks?!”

These words were echoed by Supreme Leader Khamenei, whose hard-line stance is not surprising. Emphasising U.S. desires to meddle in Iranian politics through “soft power”, he pointed out that the behaviours the U.S. wants to change are Iran’s rejection of imperialism, as well as its pursuit of “national and Islamic values.”

Speaking to students at the Science and Technology University on Dec. 14, Khamenei stated that if Iran changed these characteristics, without a doubt hostilities would cease – the implication being that Iran will of course not change these characteristics.

Taking into account these responses, the message coming out of Tehran is increasingly clear. Any change in Iran’s policy towards the U.S. will depend on the Obama administration’s policy of communicating a fundamental change in the decades-long attempt to minimise Iran’s role in the region, particularly in the Persian Gulf.

If this fundamental change is not forthcoming, the Iranian leadership in all its variety, at least publicly, is asserting its willingness to hunker down and risk further wrath rather than to “give in” to U.S. demands.

The political developments in post-invasion Iraq and Lebanon have clearly impacted Tehran’s understanding of its strengths in the region, allowing it to entertain the possibility that the U.S. may be in the process of redefining its strategic calculus and Iran’s role in it. Concurrently, they allow Iran to entertain the possibility of settling the challenges posed to its existence and interests by consistent U.S. policies of containing and neutralising Iran for the past two decades.

Yet, Tehran also seems aware that the envisioning of Iran’s broader regional role is precisely what is unnerving many quarters in Washington, seeing it instead as contradicting U.S. objectives, interests of Arab allies, and most importantly, security of Israel.

Understanding the new administration’s dilemma, Tehran is sending the message that it is ready to talk in the same way it has been in the past, this time with a U.S. presence. But it is also saying that talks along the old parametres will get old results.

*Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate of the Graduate Faculty of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

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