Page last updated at 22:25 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Obama victory offers hope to Iran

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

Iranian printers check a copy of the Iranian reformist daily, Etemad-e Melli (6 November 2008)
Many Iranians long for reconciliation with the United States

It has taken nearly two days to emerge, but the message of congratulations from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to US President-elect Barack Obama is almost certainly unprecedented since the Islamic Revolution.

Iran and the United States are more used to trading insults - the "Axis of Evil" versus the "Great Satan".

So this message seems to open intriguing possibilities in US-Iranian relations.

You might have not guessed it from his rhetoric, but it is widely believed in Tehran that President Ahmadinejad is keen for some sort of reconciliation with the US.

This poses a big dilemma for Mr Obama's new foreign policy team.

New beginning?

During the presidential election campaign, Mr Obama offered to talk with Iran without preconditions.

But any improvement in US-Iranian relations could hand a big prize to Mr Ahmadinejad, as he runs for re-election next summer.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Mr Ahmadinejad said the world expected changes from Mr Obama

It is something to distract Iranians from the disastrous state of their country's economy and public finances, as crashing oil prices compound years of mismanagement.

Mr Ahmadinejad's own, rather eccentric approach to diplomacy could of course sabotage any attempt at talks, without any outside help.

His message of congratulations to Mr Obama contained some of the familiar old rhetoric - nations around the world wanted an end to American war-mongering, he said.

And his spokesman responded to Mr Obama's offer of talks a few weeks ago by saying that Iran had its own conditions for dialogue - the US should first end its support for Israel, and end its presence in the Middle East. No problem there, then!

In any case, Mr Ahmadinejad is not the only, or even the most important voice, in the Iranian government.

The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, is seen as preferring a dialogue with Europe rather than the US.

The great nation of Iran welcomes basic and fair changes in US policies and conducts, especially in the region
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iranian President

He is becoming an increasingly powerful opponent of the Iranian president.

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is meanwhile sounding increasingly hawkish in his comments about America.

He seems to believe that the Islamic Republic thrives on its hostility towards the "Great Satan".

Indeed, the long silence before the Iranian government made any reaction to the election showed just how confused they must be.

There must be those who long for the simplicity of a world in which the US is the enemy, and its president is vilified across the globe.

Domestic woes

As for ordinary Iranians, many of them long for a reconciliation with the US, and an end to their international isolation.

There was dismay recently when Iran received just 32 votes in the UN General Assembly in its bid for a seat on the Security Council, compared with 158 for Japan.

US President-elect Barack Obama
Despite Mr Obama's offer of talks, his team is quick to point out that they are not going to be soft on Iran

It is hardly the world leadership to which Mr Ahmadinejad aspires.

But there is also growing bitterness in Iran towards the president and his government, with many people reluctant to see them enjoy any sort of diplomatic success.

Iranians have a charming faith that their country is at the very centre of world affairs.

So their first disappointment may come if the Mr Obama fails to take this immediately into account.

But sooner or later, relations with Tehran will be one of the thorniest questions on the future president's desk.

Indeed, it could well become one of the biggest challenges of his presidency, as it has been for several of his predecessors.

Despite Mr Obama's offer of talks, his team is quick to point out that they are not going to be soft on Iran.

It was a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was destroyed by the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979.

After that, the Democrats lost the White House for 12 years. There are still bitter memories.

Nuclear impasse

On the face of it, the biggest issue for Mr Obama's new foreign policy team will be Iran's controversial nuclear programme - how to prevent Iran getting a nuclear weapon, even though its government insists it has no such intention.

But despite growing concern, particularly in Israel, most estimates are that Iran is still some way from being able to make a nuclear bomb.

Are they really prepared to give up US ambitions of regime change in Iran, and to make their peace with the Islamic Republic?

Furthermore, at the moment Iran's two main nuclear facilities, the Bushehr reactor and the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, are closely monitored by the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.

In order to move from peaceful use, Iran would have to kick out the inspectors - giving the world a clear warning of its intentions.

The more immediate problem may be the situation in Iraq.

If the new US president fulfils his pledge to speed up the pullout of American troops, how then to prevent the Iraqi government becoming ever more closely allied to Iran?

Not exactly the cause for which thousands of US, British and allied troops - and their friends in Iraq - lost their lives.

And there is a more fundamental question facing the new US administration.

Are they really prepared to give up US ambitions of regime change in Iran, and to make their peace with the Islamic Republic?

For that is surely the fundamental issue at the root of all the disagreements between Tehran and Washington.

Mr Obama may reflect on the paradox that normalisation, or normality, not the threat of war, could well be the biggest challenge.

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