Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is softening and there are signs of fresh thinking from Washington, but difficulties remain
A diplomatic minuet between the US and Iran is taking place that might just lead to better ties between two countries that have had no formal relations for 30 years. In the latest development, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who usually spouts bloodcurdling rhetoric – sounded positively emollient towards the US.
In a speech to mark the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, the president said the world was entering a "new era of dialogue" and that his country would welcome talks based on mutual respect with the US. That was a marked change in tone compared with a speech Ahmadinejad made just a few weeks ago, in which he took a more uncompromising line. Then, in a live televised address, Ahmadinejad said he would welcome a change in American policy provided it came with a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and an apology for "crimes" America had committed against Iran, including US backing for the 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically elected Muhammad Mossadeq and restored the shah. Or, as Julian Borger, the Guardian's diplomatic editor, put it: "Yes, we can talk, he is saying, if you come on your hands and knees."
The overtures from the US began as soon as Barack Obama was elected in November, when the new administration said on the White House website that it was prepared to deal directly with Iran. This was a major break from the Bush administration, which considered Iran part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq – before the 2003 US-led invasion – and North Korea. Obama has kept up his overtures: last night, the US president said he expected that his administration would be looking for "openings" where Washington and Tehran could sit down face to face. The Guardian has reported on a letter the US has been working on to send to the Iranians.
But, as Martin Woollacott, who covered the Iranian revolution for the Guardian 30 years ago, warns, a rapprochement is not going to be simple:
Both sides want concessions without budging from their main positions. And, if they are to make any real progress, they first need to reconcile their conflicting understanding of the past, and, second, arrive at some agreement about what the Middle East should look like in the future.
Encouragingly, fresh thinking seems to be coming out of Washington at a time when Obama appears keen to lance the boil in US-Iranian relations. Writing in Foreign Affairs, two Washington heavyweights, Richard Haas and Martin Indyk, argue that the US should abandon its demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment programme as a precondition for formal negotiations. That demand by the Bush administration effectively blocked any chance for full diplomatic engagement. Haas and Indyk go further in making the case that the US should be willing to discuss Iran's right to enrich uranium, "provided that Iran agrees to limit its enrichment programme under enhanced safeguards to keep it from developing a 'breakout capability' – the capacity to produce significant amounts of weapons-grade uranium. However, this right must be earned by Iran, not conceded by the United States."
As the US and Iran play diplomatic footsie with each other, Philippe Welti, a Swiss diplomat who spent more than four years as his country's chief envoy to Iran, has this advice for the US: put American diplomats in Tehran. "They don't lose anything, and they get a firsthand insight into the regime," he told the Los Angeles Times. But Welti, who tells of his frustrations in dealing with Iran – including venal politicians – predicts it will be hard going in building up a relationship.
They were attacked in 1980. They were traumatised and still feel traumatised. They are still living that war. They have been exposed to a million threats for years now. They're simply getting ready. It is very difficult for everybody to know what the ultimate purpose of the nuclear programme is. Some observers think they are just buying time. I am not in a position to judge.