No chance now for Iran-US rapprochement

TEHRAN — After eight years of often conciliatory diplomacy and a presidential election where resuming ties with the United States was floated as a real possibility, Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s victory has abruptly slammed the door on any immediate chance of making up with Washington, analysts say.
The final say on the matter rests with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but a victory by the more moderate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — who campaigned on the need to “solve” a quarter of a century of estrangement — could have seen the issue forced.

“Decision making on matters like this are in the hand of the leader,” explained Amir Mohebian, political editor and analyst at the conservative daily Ressalat.

“If and when the regime thinks it is time to resume ties, of course the president is one of the few people who has a say in this matter,” he said. But Rafsanjani, he noted, had “haggling power with the US and a power of persuasion with the leader. He was a supporter of such a step but Ahmadinejad is not.” The United States sees Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and has repeatedly voiced fears that Tehran could be playing a destabilising role in Iraq and other regional states.

But prior to the election, Rafsanjani insisted the time could be right to open a “new chapter” in relations with the United States, cut off since after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the hostage-taking at the US embassy.

Rafsanjani did stick firmly by a demand that Washington take the first step, but many diplomats said there were strong hints that Iran would have been ready to make some conciliatory gestures.

“There was really a slim chance, and I emphasise the word slim, that something could have started to change if Rafsanjani had won,” a Tehran-based Western ambassador told AFP.

“Rafsanjani’s demand that the Americans first give back the Iranians their assets was unrealistic, but he was hinting that some middle ground could be found,” he said. “The election has put a stop to that kind of talk.” After a humiliating defeat, Rafsanjani has been left with vastly reduced influence.

Ahmadinejad, moreover, has clearly signalled that any change to the status quo is not on the cards — barring the unlikely prospect of Washington having a spontaneous change of heart.

“In the past, the Americans broke off relations with Iran to create pressure. If they want to reestablish them now it is for the same reasons. We do not want to have imposed relations,” Ahmadinejad said during his campaign. “I want sincere and close relations with all nations and governments and we are ready to have a positive interaction towards any government that does not take the position of animosity towards us,” he has said. In the wake of the election the regime — now totally dominated by right-wingers deeply hostile to what they brand the “Great Satan” — are expected to first look at Iran’s domestic situation and follow through on Ahmadinejad’s support base. While the Tehran mayor’s opponents blamed rigging and irregularities for the outcome, Ahmadinejad undoubtedly won huge support from ordinary Iranians who suffer unemployment, low purchasing power and inflation. “The regime will take a while to settle in, and then logically its first priority will be to act on the economy,” said the editor of an Iranian economics magazine, who asked not to be named.

“The US issue has been pushed off the agenda. The message of the regime, and of the electorate, is that domestic issues are more urgent.”

But even if the US issue was something the regime wanted to address, the victory of Ahmadinejad — a veteran of the Revolutionary Guards who appeared to have won their backing for the campaign — is unlikely to please anyone in Washington.

“The Revolutionary Guards put `We will wipe Israel off the map’ on the side of their rockets,” another Western diplomat said. “Not the kind of people the Americans want to talk to.”

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