TEHRAN - In light of the Iranian presidential election coming in mid-2009 and
the United States distaste for President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, US president-elect
Barack Obama is being advised to avoid any communication with Tehran until
after Iranians vote next June.
But Iranian political analysts who are familiar with the thinking of both
Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
believe it would be a serious mistake for Obama to take no action until after
Amir Mohebbian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper, and
political analyst Saeed Laylaz, who has been a critic of government economic
policy, both said in interviews that Obama should communicate directly with
Khamenei, who they say will make the ultimate decisions regarding relations
with the United States.
"My advice to Obama's team is to start negotiations immediately," said Laylaz.
Failing to do so, he said, would be to repeat "the same mistake made by George
Laylaz, who believes Iran needs ties with the US to achieve economic stability,
said Obama would be well advised to follow the example of then-Russian
president Vladimir Putin, who sent the secretary of his national security
council, Igor Ivanov, to Tehran with a personal letter to the Supreme Leader in
Khamenei subsequently sent his own personal envoy, former foreign minister Ali
Akbar Velyati, to Moscow to meet with Putin.
Laylaz said there was "no doubt" that the Supreme Leader is fully supportive of
Ahmadinejad's effort to draw the Obama administration into negotiations and
that the president had a "green light" to write a letter of congratulations to
Obama after his election.
Mohebbian, who has had close ties to Ahmadinejad in the past but has become a
critic of the president more recently, agreed that US strategy should be
focused on Supreme Leader Khamenei. He said Ahmadinejad would be attacked, at
least by conservatives, if he sought to negotiate with the United States. If
"the leader" indicated that he wants such negotiations, however, nobody will
attack the decision, according to Mohebbian.
The conservative strategist urged that Obama write a letter to Ahmadinejad as a
first step to contacting "the leader".
"Obama can say to Ahmadinejad, thank you for your congratulations, and I will
send my ideas later," said Mohebbian. But he suggested that Obama send his
proposal for talks to Khamenei instead of Ahmadinejad. "He should say that the
US wants to make a bridge from the past," Mohebbian said. "We should try to
make this bridge together."
Mohebbian called such a letter "a very big step" toward negotiations that would
open up prospects for a series of gestures by Iran, such as direct relations
between the Iranian Majlis (parliament) and the US Congress.
Such a US proposal directly to Khamenei would not bring a negative reaction
from conservatives, Mohebbian predicted. He recalled that he had written an
article calling for that approach to starting US-Iran negotiations in the
conservative Resalat, and that "nobody said this is a bad idea".
Advisers to Ahmadinejad, political figures and analysts all warned in
interviews, however, that any bid by the Obama administration for negotiations
with Iran will fail unless US officials become more sensitive to the impact of
the political symbolism imbedded in its language.
The main reason, they agree, is Iranian perceptions that the United States
continues to regard Iran as an inferior state in a US-dominated international
hierarchy of power. After decades of US policy based on the assumption that
Iran can be coerced to agree to US demands, what Iranians officials are now
demanding as a condition for negotiations is some sign of US respect for the
Islamic Republic and an end to overtly hostile policies toward Iran.
One adviser to Ahmadinejad, who agreed to be interviewed if he were not
identified, emphasized the necessity for Washington to create "a much better
atmosphere" for talks, saying Iranians are "not ready" to negotiate without
such a change.
"You can't just go into the room and say, let's negotiate," said the adviser,
adding, "Symbols are very important."
Dr Ali Reza Zaker, president of the Center for Strategic Studies, the
think-tank which provides analysis on international affairs to Ahmadinejad,
said the issue of respect for Iran and the acceptance of its equal status was
"the most important issue" in regard to establishing the conditions for
Zaker, a student of political philosophy specializing in the Islamic world's
relations with the West, complained that the United States has never had the
slightest respect for Iran - "the kind of respect and recognition that should
be accorded a viable, legitimate nation".
To send "an important signal" that its attitude toward Iran has changed, Zaker
said, the Obama administration should include the phrase "mutual respect" in
its initial communication to Iran about negotiations.
A second requirement for the creation of an atmosphere in which negotiations
could take place, according to Zaker, is to recognize explicitly that Iran has
legitimate interests, too. "Communications should go beyond the nuclear issue
and say 'we understand your concerns'," said Zaker.
The importance of a signal by the Obama administration of "respect" for Iran
was also affirmed by Mohebbian, the conservative editor and political
strategist. He urged Obama's team to "change the US political literature and
use respectful language". Such language, he said, "can give a very, very good
signal to Iranians".
A second step for Washington to take is to "say to Iranian people that we don't
confirm the policies of previous administrations", said Mohebbian.
Mohammad Atrianfar, a reformist politician and newspaper editor who has been a
senior political adviser to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also
suggested in an interview that Obama will need to "correct mistakes of his
predecessor" in order to signal a change in policy toward Iran.
Atrianfar suggested that two such necessary corrections are a renunciation of
Bush's inclusion of Iran as part of an "Axis of Evil" and his policy of regime
change. "The Iranian people will never allow the American president to brand
Iran as part of the Axis of Evil," said Atrianfar. "Even critics of the Iranian
government with many concerns about the ruling system won't allow talk of
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who was chief of staff to reformist president Mohammad
Khatami and then vice president in Khatami's government, refused to offer
suggestions as to how Obama should approach the Iranian government on possible
US-Iran talks. "I'm not his adviser," said Abtahi.
But Abtahi suggested there is "not sufficient confidence on both sides" for
US-Iran negotiations, and that "confidence-building measures" were needed.
NEXT: Economy, ties with West key to polls
Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist and historian specializing in
US national security policy, has just completed a 12-day visit to Tehran to
find out how Iranian officials, analysts and political figures view possible
negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran.