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Iran: What Does Ahmadinejad's Victory Mean For U.S.-Iranian Relations?

Iranian President-elect Mahmud Ahmadinejad The United States is ending eight years of often difficult relations with Iran under President Mohammad Khatami, who portrays himself as a reformer. Now, it must contend with President-elect Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is seen as a hard- liner. U.S. President George W. Bush reiterated Monday that it would be "unacceptable" for Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon or the ability to make one. Bush also criticized the election itself, saying a vote is never free and fair when a group of unelected people get to decide who is on the ballot. Will Ahmadinejad's term mean more difficult relations between Iran and America?

Washington, 28 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- At a postelection news conference, Iranian President-elect Mahmud Ahmadinejad said Tehran's policy toward the United States has been clear and consistent for decades.

Iran, he said, is a strong nation and doesn't need the Americans.

Despite this rigid stance, Ahmadinejad appeared to have softened his words, although he did not mention the United States by name.

"We will consider diplomatic relations with any nation that is not hostile with the Islamic Republic [of Iran] and Iran's people," Ahmadinejad said. "I think those who are willing to develop diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic need to state their policies transparently so our government, our nation, our system can examine them."

Does this mean Ahmadinejad is prepared to work to improve relations with the United States?

Ted Carpenter, the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private research institute in Washington, said he believes that question should be reversed.

Carpenter told RFE/RL that the administration of George W. Bush is concerned that Iranian hard-liners and its country's religious leadership might have ties to Al-Qaeda. They are also worried that Ahmadinejad's government will proceed with Iran's nuclear program without restraint, he said.

"The problem is not whether the Iranian government might be willing to cut deals with the United States; we really don't know what their position is going to be," Carpenter said. "But it's unlikely that the United States is going to be very interested in cutting a deal with this government. I think [the Bush administration] sees this as the final triumph of the hard-liners."

Carpenter also said much of the Bush administration's view of Iran and its intentions might be distorted because it is based largely on information from Iranian dissidents and exiles. He comparef this to the run-up to the Iraq war two years ago when, he said, the administration was also largely misinformed about the situation inside the country.

"In dealing with [Middle Eastern] exile groups, we should not only take their views with a grain of salt," Carpenter said. "We should do so with the entire salt shaker at hand (be extremely skeptical). They are usually not representative of the larger population back home. They're better educated. They tend to be more urban. They're the type of people all too often that we want so desperately to win in these societies, but they typically are weaker than we believe that they are."

Carpenter said the United States might have to get used to the idea that Ahmadinejad's government actually does enjoy broad popular support.

Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst for the Defense and State departments, said it is too early even to begin to guess the direction Ahmadinejad will take in foreign policy.

Cordesman said too little is known about Ahmadinejad. He said there is no way to tell how he would deal with the Majlis, Iran's parliament, or with the country's religious leaders, led by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The only clue so far to Ahmadinejad's intentions, Cordesman said, is what he said during his presidential campaign.

"It is certainly clear that he did not run on improving relations with the U.S. In fact, he took the opposite viewpoint," Cordesman said. "The difficulty is, can he change his position? The other difficulty is, does the supreme leader want him to? This president is not really the leader of the country. It is Khamenei who is going to make these decisions."

In fact, Cordesman said, Ahmadinejad, only now finishing his job as mayor of Tehran, probably doesn't yet have a foreign policy of his own, given his alternately hard-line and conciliatory messages at his 26 June news conference.

"I think it's fairly clear that [Ahmadinejad] has not solidified his foreign policy," Cordesman said. "We're going to have to wait and see how much he purges the former president's [Khamenei's] Foreign Ministry, how much he articulates a new foreign policy. It's going to be a matter of interacting with U.S. policy. And right now, it's not clear that there's a great deal of incentive for him to take any risks or to push for changes unless he's sure that the United States is going to respond in kind."

Cordesman said the world should expect both sides to spend a lot of time exploring each other's intentions before either settles on a firm policy.

[For more on Iran's recent presidential election, see RFE/RL's dedicated Iran Votes 2005 webpabe.]