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Facing Obama, Iran Suddenly Hedges on Talks

Iran tests a missile that its defense minister said has a range of 1,200 miles, meaning it could reach Israel.
Iran tests a missile that its defense minister said has a range of 1,200 miles, meaning it could reach Israel. (By Vahid Reza Alaei -- Fars News Agency Via Associated Press)

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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 13, 2008

TEHRAN, Nov. 12 -- Since 2006, Iran's leaders have called for direct, unconditional talks with the United States to resolve international concerns over their nuclear program. But as an American administration open to such negotiations prepares to take power, Iran's political and military leaders are sounding suddenly wary of President-elect Barack Obama.

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"People who put on a mask of friendship, but with the objective of betrayal, and who enter from the angle of negotiations without preconditions, are more dangerous," Hossein Taeb, deputy commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Wednesday, according to the semiofficial Mehr News Agency.

"The power holders in the new American government are trying to regain their lost influence with a tactical change in their foreign diplomacy. They are shifting from a hard conflict to a soft attack," Taeb said.

For Iran's leaders, the only state of affairs worse than poor relations with the United States may be improved relations. The Shiite Muslim clerics who rule the country came to power after ousting Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a U.S.-backed autocrat, in their 1979 Islamic revolution. Opposition to the United States, long vilified as the "great Satan" here in Friday sermons, remains one of the main pillars of Iranian politics.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent Obama a congratulatory letter last week, but by Wednesday his welcoming tone had dissipated. "It doesn't make any difference for us who comes and who goes," he said in a speech in the northern town of Sari. "It's their actions which are studied by the Iranian and world nations."

On Wednesday, Iran test-fired a two-stage, solid-fuel rocket, Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar announced on state television. He said the missile had a range of 1,200 miles -- meaning that it could reach Israel and U.S. targets in the Middle East.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that he could not "independently confirm media reports indicating an Iranian missile launch," but added that "Iran's missile program is a concern that poses a threat to its neighbors in the region and beyond."

In recent interviews, advisers to Ahmadinejad said the new U.S. administration would have to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, show respect for Iran's system of rule by a supreme religious leader, and withdraw its objections to Iran's nuclear program before it can enter into negotiations with the Iranian government.

"The U.S. must prove that their policies have changed and are now based upon respecting the rights of the Iranian nation and mutual respect," said Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, the president's closest adviser.

Ahmadinejad's media adviser, Mehdi Kalhor, said that "in fair circumstances" Iran would be open to talks. "But that is not when you have a bayonet pressed at your artery," he added, referring to the U.S. forces deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

Iran's leaders have long said they want to resolve the international concerns over the country's nuclear program through negotiations. Western governments have expressed concern that Iran's enrichment of uranium and other nuclear activities have been part of a weapons program.

The Bush administration has demanded that Iran suspend uranium enrichment before talks can take place, a precondition that Iran has rejected on the grounds that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. In 2006, Ahmadinejad said that Iran "is after negotiations, but fair and just negotiations. They must be without any conditions."


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