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

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The Independent Online

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