Hassan Rouhani, center, president of Iran, leaves a press conference at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 27, 2013. A possible thaw in U.S.-Iran relations spurred by Rouhani’s June election have sparked a public debate in Iran about mending fences with a longtime adversary. (Jason Szenes/EPA)

Recent moves by the United States to engage the new Iranian government, led by a moderate president, have triggered a public debate in Iran over its national interests, forcing hard-line conservatives to defend Tehran’s 34-year-old enmity with Washington.

President Hassan Rouhani’s foreign policy team has presented a new face of Iran to the outside world, and the United States and other longtime adversaries are eager to test this outreach.

The positive tone of talks in Geneva last week between world powers and Iran over its long-
disputed nuclear program has raised hopes for a diplomatic solution, but hard-liners here are threatening to derail those efforts, reflecting political divisions that existed before Rouhani’s surprise election victory in June.

“It is improper to have any expectation from the U.S., because the U.S. is the Islamic world’s number one enemy,” Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda said at last week’s Friday prayer session in Mashhad, one of Iran’s largest cities and home to its holiest site.

Although the debate can be distilled into the question of whether Iran should mend relations with the United States, the range of answers demonstrates the complexity of the issue.

Laicie Heely, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, explains what signals Tehran is sending by keeping its uranium enrichment levels below the red line drawn by Israel. (The Washington Post)

“Nobody has any illusions about the aims of Western states. Conservatives here emphasize hard talk and firm resistance in confronting these aims, while reformists favor engagement,” said Mohammad Shabani, a political analyst based in Tehran.

Rouhani, the only relative moderate in the presidential race, won outright in a field of six candidates. The next-highest vote-
getter was Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who received 16 percent.

Many observers viewed the election as a rejection of the conservative policies that had ruled Iranian politics since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. But conservatives still dominate Iran’s powerful judiciary and its parliament, which will not see elections until 2016.

In the ongoing debate, some political elites say that rising above domestic political squabbles as Iran wrestles with the economic consequences of sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program would best serve national interests. But such voices are few.

“National interests differ from factional or personal interests, and it is our duty to protect them. Our national interests are the same as the interests of Islam and our system,” Mohsen Rezaei, a perennial conservative presidential candidate and former Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, said in an interview with the semiofficial Fars News Agency on Saturday.

Rouhani’s advisers, however, are taking no definitive stance on relations with the United States.

“There are those in this country who consider any negotiation as disloyalty, and there are some who believe that only direct relations with the U.S. will serve the country. The government has no connection to either group,” Hesam­oddin Ashna, Rouhani’s cultural adviser, said Thursday on a popular political talk show.

But clerics, lawmakers, journalists and academics are more blunt, exposing a divide that may prove difficult to bridge.

“It is 34 years that we have this enmity with the U.S., and now that some opening is seen, those on the right are standing firmly against it,” Sadegh Zibakalam, a political science professor at the University of Tehran, said in a debate on the subject last week, calling conservative obstinacy the “biggest blow to Iran’s national interests.”

With the Nov. 4 anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran approaching, a text message is circulating that reads, “Aban 13 is coming; don’t forget to shout ‘Death to America,’ ” referring to the date on the Iranian calendar when students stormed the embassy and took 52 Americans hostage in 1979.

But even that infamous anti-American slogan is being questioned by some politicians, who say its usefulness has worn out.

“Over the years, we have received blows and injuries from the U.S. and our ‘Death to America’ slogan is a cry of pain from these blows. If the injury is healed, then there is no need for it,” Abdolreza Mesri, a prominent lawmaker, said Saturday.

Although critics say blind loyalty to old ideological tenets has done little to help Iran progress — leading instead to diplomatic and economic isolation — hard-line conservatives still enjoy significant support.

“Four million people voted for Saeed Jalili. Don’t underestimate these voters,” said Shabani, referring to the hard-line former nuclear negotiator who ran in the presidential race on a platform of a “resistance economy,” which held that an internationally isolated Iran could build a strong and independent domestic economy.

Sanctions on Iran reached their peak on Jalili’s watch, but that did little to dissuade followers of such rhetoric.

Finding Iranians who would like to see continued estrangement between their government and Washington, however, is becoming increasingly difficult, even among people who believe in the ruling system.

“If we have social welfare and better relations and can trade with the rest of the world, normally it will mean that our national interests are intact. We have revolutionary and Islamic values that do not conflict with such interests,” said Sohrab Mohammadpour, 30, a computer-parts store owner in the northern city of Tabriz.