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.
"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."
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.