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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)

Obama has advocated "direct tough presidential diplomacy with Iran, without preconditions," according to his campaign Web site, and has said a nuclear-armed Iran would be unacceptable.

Two weeks ago, in comments that may have set the tone for some of the rhetoric being used to describe the incoming U.S. administration, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, said the conflicts between the two countries were deep-rooted and went beyond political differences.

"This is because of the numerous conspiracies of the U.S. government against the Iranian country and nation throughout the last 50 years, and not only have they not apologized for this but they have continued their arrogant actions," said Khamenei, speaking at a commemoration of the taking of 52 hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Khamenei has final say in all matters of foreign policy.

Kalhor, Ahmadinejad's media adviser, said Iran's "policies and position towards America have not changed at all." He added: "Our problems with America are strategic."

The list of outstanding issues between the two governments is long. Apart from suspicions over Iran's nuclear program and concerns about its development of missiles, the United States opposes Iran's support for the Palestinian Hamas movement and Hezbollah in Lebanon, two organizations branded as "terrorist" by the Bush administration.

Iranian leaders see themselves as flag-bearers in a struggle against what they call the "global imperialist system," meaning the United States and Israel. Iran's nuclear program has become a test case to prove its independence from the West. The Iranian leadership does not recognize Israel as a state and refuses all contact with the country.

In comments during his first news conference, Obama set some Iranian leaders on edge. "Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable. We have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening," Obama said. "Iran's support of terrorist organizations, I think, is something that has to cease."

Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran's parliament and a political rival to Ahmadinejad, heard echoes of the past. "Obama's words were tantamount to moving on the previous wrong track," Larijani told reporters.

In 2007, Iran and the United States held direct ambassador-level talks on the security situation in Iraq. A year later, Larijani said it was wrong to say improvements in Iraqi security were thanks to the U.S. "surge" in troop numbers. "Credit should go to the Iraqi government and its neighbors," he said.

Iran is increasingly worried by a possible security pact between the United States and Iraq that would provide a legal basis for American combat troops to remain in the country until the end of 2011.

"Any pact that would guarantee the presence of U.S. forces in the region would not be regarded as valid by Iran," Kalhor said.

Samareh Hashemi said Obama's campaign promises regarding Iraq were one of the reasons that Ahmadinejad sent his congratulatory letter.

"Mr. Obama has mentioned a program for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq. He explicitly said that he does not support U.S. troops remaining in Iraq. He said he would have a specific program and timetable to get the troops out. This all deserved Iran's attention," Samareh Hashemi said.

He also said Obama drew support from American voters because of his positions on foreign policy.

"Generally, all of these issues were merged into one slogan: change. But that must mean change of current policies, change of militaristic policies, change in the unacceptable meddling in the affairs of other countries," he said.

"If these policies really change, then the deep gap, the distance between Iran and the U.S., will become less. If these promises are acted upon, there will be more chance for closeness between the two nations," Samareh Hashemi said.

Obama would not be welcome in Iran as president, were he to decide to come here, Kalhor said. "He can come as a tourist."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.

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