Iran's Leaders Divided on U.S.

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 6, 2008

TEHRAN -- A senior adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has rejected a proposed expansion of the U.S. diplomatic presence in Iran, saying in an interview that the idea is a "propaganda pose."

Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, in an interview last Sunday, said that to improve relations with Iran, the United States would have to withdraw its military forces from Iraq and accept Iran's nuclear program.

During a visit to the United Nations last week, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki signaled willingness to allow the first U.S. diplomats to work in Tehran, at an interests section now staffed by non-Americans. He also called for direct flights between Tehran and New York, repeating an Iranian proposal made in 2007.

The contrast between the two officials' statements illustrates the contentious debate taking place here over Iran's relations with the United States, which were severed after the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran in 1979. It shows the complexity of Iran's leadership structure, in which politicians and unelected clerics sometimes have overlapping areas of responsibility but differing goals and policies.

Facing international pressure over its nuclear program, the Iranian leadership is now looking for ways to deal with the United States.

Samareh Hashemi, an old friend of Ahmadinejad and now his top adviser, expressed Iranian interest in negotiations on a June proposal by the United States and five other powers for breaking the impasse over Iran's nuclear program. "There is a chance for negotiations, an opportunity," he said.

On Friday, Iran gave a response to the proposal that diplomats characterized as a positive step. Details were not given. But on Saturday, an Iranian government spokesman said Iran had "no intention of discussing its right to enrich uranium," a key demand in the proposal.

Analysts say politicians and advisers affiliated with Ahmadinejad are more interested in lengthy negotiations than in restoring relations and are more influential than technocrats, who genuinely want to improve ties between the two countries.

"The group which has taken power in Iran the last years is convinced that there is no path to any agreement with the United States. They feel that the only outcome of this conflict is when one side loses," said Abbas Abdi, who took part in the 1979 hostage-taking but is now critical of Iran's leaders.

"On the other hand, more pragmatic, experienced politicians now on the fringes of the power circle are actively contemplating how to establish relations with the U.S. in order to solve problems," Abdi said.

Other analysts said the two countries are at a crossroads. "We are in a period in which confrontation with the U.S. or normalization of ties could take place," said Sadegh Kharrazi, a former Iranian ambassador to France.

The idea of enlarging the U.S. interests section was raised in a recent Washington Post article that cited State Department and other U.S. officials.

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