Katherine Butler: It will take more than poetry to heal the Iranian wounds

Why has Iran apparently dismissed Barack Obama's call for "a new beginning"? As Iranians celebrated Nowruz, the Persian new year, marking renewal and the arrival of spring, the US President offered them his gift: a video in which he praised their great civilisation, said that he wanted to pursue dialogue across the range of differences while urging them to give up their old threats.

Over the weekend, a first response from Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, came in a sermon. Iran's most powerful figure in its complex political hierarchy, described what in the West was being called an extraordinary overture as "a slogan", meaningless without an accompanying shift in America's actions. This was greeted in Washington as a rebuff. Yet anyone who thought Iran would instantly embrace the "make love not war" message from the US is either naive or has forgotten history.

In Tehran recently, I had the opportunity to ask scores of Iranians what they thought of Barack Obama and the prospects for a new beginning. Answers ranged from the young woman student who smiled and said; "We don't trust him", to the man running a caviar export business who frowned and said "He's a breath of fresh air, he's intelligent and he'll change the world". One theme was common to the replies: America would have to treat Iran with respect and accept that its wish for a civilian nuclear programme was reasonable.

The sense of injured national pride is immense and it will take more than a few lines of Persian poetry to melt Iranians' suspicions about Western motives. Yes, President Obama referred in his broadcast to "the Islamic Republic of Iran" – diplomatic code that he is not seeking regime change. But why should Iran trust any American leader's words?

Iran has legitimate grievances with the West which will have to be acknowledged by Washington if any progress is to be made. Ali Larijani, the Iranian Speaker and a former nuclear negotiator, catalogued America's double-dealing going back to the 1953 CIA coup engineered by the US and Britain to the "double standards" currently applied by the West. "They open the window every morning and shout about terrorism" he said, "but then secretly sit down to talk to the Taliban".

None of this means the omens are negative. Average Iranians, as opposed to their leaders, are more drawn to American culture than any other people in the Middle East. Most of them want an end to their demonisation and isolation on the world stage.

And Ayatollah Khamenei, who must navigate between reformists and arch-conservatives, did leave the door ajar. He demanded to see real change in US actions such as unfreezing Iran's assets and easing sanctions. Such moves could boost the chances of pro-reform candidates in presidential elections in June.

Ultimately, Iran knows that governments don't have friends, they have interests, and it rightly suspects that Israeli pressure is one of the big drivers of any American initiative on Iran. This doesn't preclude an eventual rapprochement, it just explains why Iran sees the US overture as a move on a chess board; one that is freighted with possibility but also with risk.

The writer is The Independent's Foreign Editor

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Marketing and Business Development Officer

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hull based charity providing except...

Recruitment Genius: Part Time Female Support Worker

£9464 - £10396 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful applicant will ne...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future