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Changing U.S.-Iran Relations Won't Be Easy

As supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) has the last word in Iran.
As supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) has the last word in Iran.
During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, Barack Obama distinguished himself by, among other things, expressing a willingness to hold direct and unconditional talks with the leadership of Iran.

But what would they discuss? Would Tehran be willing to demonstrate that it is not attempting to build nuclear weapons or to end its support for extremist groups in the Middle East, which Obama has stated would be necessary for "direct diplomacy" to move forward?

Earlier this month, International Atomic Energy Agency head Muhammad el-Baradei said that international efforts to halt Iran's nuclear activities have failed. London-based proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick has concluded that "the international community has failed to persuade Iran to stop work that will soon give it a latent nuclear-weapons capability."

As for the second point, although Iran is concerned about a likely U.S.-Syrian rapprochement under Obama, Tehran has made it clear it will not back away from its support for Palestinian, Lebanese, and other groups Iran's leaders use to exert regional influence.

In addition, the domestic situation within Iran does not seem promising for improved relations with the United States. Just three weeks after Obama's inauguration in January, Iran will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution, the event that decisively threw U.S.-Iranian relations off track.

What Khamenei Decides

A few months later, Iranians will hold a presidential election and -- of course -- will endorse the person that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has selected for them. In Iran, no one may run for president (or even for parliament) without being approved by the Guardians Council, a de facto instrument of the supreme leader.

Having spent the last few years consolidating his hold on power, it is unlikely Khamenei will take a second chance with even a toothless reformer, such as former President Mohammad Khatami was. Khatami's 1997 election inspired millions of Iranians to hope for social and political changes that the supreme leader -- who controls all decisions related to foreign policy, the military, justice, national security, the media, etc. -- was simply not willing to introduce.

All indications now -- including recent, fairly direct statements from Khamenei himself -- are that he will either stick with his protege, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, or will choose a loyalist like parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who would likely be less of a domestic and international embarrassment than Ahmadinejad has proven.

Larijani, who used to be Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, is fairly well known in the West. Two years ago, he told a visiting U.S. journalist that the next U.S. president should take a lesson from Richard Nixon's historic opening to communist China in 1972.

Larijani said that U.S. recognition of the domestic legitimacy of Iran's theocratic regime and its role as an important stakeholder in the Middle East would pave the way for agreement on "tactical" issues including Iran's role in the region and, even, the nuclear question. He said in the wake of such acknowledgment from Washington, Tehran would be more responsive to U.S. concerns and more cooperative in reaching compromises. But the basic condition is that Iran must be recognized as an ancient and great civilization of no less stature than the United States or other Western states.

Again, The 'Grand Bargain'

Since Larijani made these statements, little has changed. Although low oil prices and the global economic crisis are hitting Iran, it is unlikely these factors alone will be sufficient to force a major foreign-policy about-face. Instead, Iranians constantly return to one theme: We helped the West after 2001 in routing the Taliban and what did we get? Inclusion in George W. Bush's "axis of evil." So what can we hope to get if we agree to a verifiable suspension of the nuclear program?

The question now facing Obama is whether a "grand bargain" along the lines of what Larijani has suggested is in the U.S. national interest or not. If so, the tandem of Obama and soon-to-be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could be well-suited to follow the model of Nixon and Henry Kissinger on China. One could easily imagine a steady line from renouncing U.S. support for regime change in Iran to easing isolation and pressure against Iran, all building to serious, direct talks at the highest level and, in the end, normalization of relations.

But it remains to be seen if Khamenei and his choice as president will be as flexible and pragmatic as Mao Zedong and Zhoi Enlai were. The regime in Iran still relies heavily on anti-Americanism as a pillar of its self-justification and its leaders have been unable to shed the revolutionary and isolationist rhetoric that emerged in the 1980s. For one thing, pursuing a "grand bargain" strategy would likely require dumping Ahmadinejad -- who would most likely not be welcomed as a negotiating partner by the West, particularly Washington.

Change is possible in U.S.-Iranian relations, but it won't be as easy as some first hoped when Obama was elected. Even if attitudes and tactics have shifted in Washington, Iran has shown no sign of a willingness or ability to match that shift.

Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL