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Talking to Tehran

Obama's call for better relations challenges Iran's hardliners
The Times
March 21, 2009

It will be hard for the Iranian Government to ignore President Obama's offer of an engagement “that is honest and grounded in mutual respect”. It has, however, tried. No state television channel carried any clip from Mr Obama's video message marking Nowruz, the popular spring festival. Neither President Ahmadinejad nor Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the Supreme Leader, mentioned it in their televised addresses. The only official comment, to Iran's overseas English-language television station, was made by a presidential adviser, who played down the US initiative by insisting that Washington had first to address past mistakes in Iran.

There is no doubt, however, that Mr Obama's call for better relations will spread fast. Despite an official ban, many Iranians have satellite dishes. Many more have access to websites carrying the address to Iran's leaders and people. And Iran's younger generation will quickly seek out foreign radio and television stations and the reactions of the large Iranian community in America to this clear shift in Washington's policy.

It could not be more astutely timed. Mr Obama chose a festival that has no religious connection and is celebrated by all Iranians who take pride in their ancient civilisation - to which the President paid pointed tribute. His initiative, the logical follow-up to his inauguration promise to extend a hand of peace to Iran if it “unclenched its fist”, comes shortly before Iran's election campaign, wrongfooting attempts by Mr Ahmadinejad and the hardliners around him to garner support by whipping up the threat of further confrontation with Washington.

It also comes just before Mr Obama's visit to Europe and Turkey. It has already drawn warm praise from European leaders, who have been pressing for a new diplomatic push to underpin the international pressure on Tehran over its nuclear ambitions. And when he arrives in Istanbul, on his first presidential visit to a Muslim country, he can already show a substantial initiative to improve relations with the Muslim world.

Tehran has been nonplussed by the offer. Its churlish reaction and insistence on tough conditions for any new dialogue are an attempt to buy time for the opaque decision-making process, which is facing a dilemma on whether to open up or not. Mr Ahmadinejad is under attack for his inept handling of the economy and a perceived failure to do any thing to alleviate poverty; he will now find, to his fury, that the Obama offer will be a significant factor in the election campaign and one that will give unanticipated advantage to the pragmatists hoping for his defeat.

The US offer will not necessarily bear fruit. Iran will not easily be persuaded to halt its nuclear programme, end support for Hezbollah and terrorist groups or curb its anti-Israel rhetoric. A Netanyahu government would be deeply concerned by any US-Iran rapprochement, and though unable to voice open opposition, might seek to delay it. Many US Republicans will also be furious. Nevertheless, Mr Obama should press ahead. An end to the 30-year quarrel with Iran would remake the Muslim world and create the basis for an entirely new relationship between the US and the Middle East. Six years after the invasion of Iraq, there could be no clearer demonstration of Washington's readiness to reinvent its engagement with the world.

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