Iran to Obama: Show us the change

An old Buick parked in the mountain resorts near Tehran is a reminder of previous ties between the United States and Iran.
An old Buick parked in the mountain resorts near Tehran is a reminder of previous ties between the United States and Iran. Warren Strobel / MCT

TEHRAN, Iran — Weekly prayer services at Tehran University ended Friday with the obligatory "Death to America! Death to Israel" chants, intoned almost robotically and without apparent enthusiasm by most of the thousands of worshippers.

During his sermon minutes before, however, the imam, Ayatollah Mohammed Emami Kashani, had a different message. He praised the election of Barack Obama and the U.S. electorate's rejection of the Republican Party and said it would change history "in the core" and perhaps end what Iran considers hostile U.S. policies.

"We wish for the day this happens, and these policies go," Kashani told the crowd, which included Ali Larijani, Iran's former nuclear negotiator and now the speaker of the Majlis, or parliament.

President-elect Obama said during the campaign that he was willing to negotiate with Iran without preconditions over its nuclear program and other serious disagreements between the countries. Many conservatives argue for a tougher line on Iran, however, and it's likely to be one of the toughest diplomatic and security challenges of Obama's new administration.

Obama's statements have raised a mixture of hope, skepticism and even apprehension in the Iranian capital. The government, balanced among Iran's religious leaders, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other factions, seems divided over how to respond. Most Tehran residents, meanwhile, openly yearn for an improvement in relations after 30 years of estrangement.

If there's one unifying theme among Iranians of many stripes, it's this: It's up to Obama to make the first move.

"The ball's in your court now," said Kazem Jalali, an independent member of parliament who serves as a spokesman on national security matters. Ahmadinejad took the unusual step of congratulating Obama on his election, Jalali pointed out.

Then, with equal dashes of Persian pride and negotiating acumen, Jalali added: "I am not indicating we are thirsty for an answer. It is up to you." (Obama said during a news conference last month that he'd decide how to respond to Ahmadinejad's message in due course.)

Obama, through his transition team, declined to respond to the gambit. "We will need to decline comment, as there is one president at a time and we intend to respect that," said the transition's chief national-security spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson.

The United States — along with Israel — considers Shiite Muslim Iran one of its primary security challenges. Iran is steadily accumulating low-enriched uranium, which could be further enriched to make nuclear-weapons fuel, according to a recent International Atomic Energy Agency report. Washington accuses Iran of funding militias in Iraq and sponsoring terrorist groups from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip.

A recent study by The Brookings Institution, a centrist research center in Washington, recommended that Obama shift the focal point of U.S. Middle East policy from Iraq to Iran and open direct talks without preconditions.

Iranians, however, insist that they're the wronged party. After quietly helping the United States in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they were stung when President George W. Bush named their country part of an "axis of evil." U.S. shortcomings in Afghanistan have helped unleash a flood of narcotics in Iran, which borders Afghanistan to the West. And Iranian officials say that their past offers to negotiate, notably in 2003, have been spurned.

Yet if Obama follows up with an outreach to Iran, it could prove just as frightening to Iran's leadership as Bush's hostility. Anti-Americanism is an unchanging cornerstone of public rhetoric here.

Obama is "more dangerous for Tehran, especially for the radicals," or religious conservatives, said Saeed Laylaz, a reform-minded economist who's close to former President Mohammad Khatami, who's considered a moderate.

Laylaz said that Bush's aggressive posture boosted the position of Ahmadinejad, who's otherwise unpopular in many sectors of Iranian society. Because of the president-elect's rhetoric of peace, "I think Obama will be a bigger threat," he said.

While Iran's government says that it will never give up nuclear technology — it denies having a weapons program — Laylaz said Tehran was ready to compromise in return for security guarantees from the United States against outside attack.

Given the muddled and bitter history between the countries, dating from U.S. support for the unpopular shah before Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, any talks are likely to be slow, frustrating and preceded by a long diplomatic dance.

European diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to be more frank, said that Iran's ruling circles were so divided over how to deal with Washington that only Obama could take the first step.

Iranians follow U.S. policy debates with an intensity that would surprise most Americans.

During his sermon Friday, Kashani referred to recent U.S. research-center reports recommending that Obama open unconditional talks with Iran, a possible reference to the Brookings report. Obama's naming of Sen. Hillary Clinton, who's been hawkish toward Iran, as secretary of state and Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, who's Jewish, as the White House chief of staff were interpreted as evidence of Obama's tilt toward Israel.

"It's not a good sign," said Hamid Zaheri, an oil company executive and former spokesman for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

As he walked to prayers with his wife under a warm autumn sun, Mahmood Khosravi, 58, repeated the come-to-us chorus. "America should make the first move," he said. "Forget about preconditions and all."


The Brookings paper


Senator asks Congress to press Iran on missing FBI agent

IAEA: Bombed Syrian site had features like a nuclear reactor

Iran softens resistance to U.S.-Iraq troop pact

Related stories from McClatchy DC