Mary Dejevsky: Positive signals from Iran - but only if you listen carefully

Most countries find it harder than the US to switch policy track
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Of all the challenges that Barack Obama has thrown out to the world since he entered the Oval Office, the most daring is his overture to Iran. It featured in his inaugural address as a general invitation to adversaries. It was addressed specifically to Iran in his television interview with al-Arabiya. And this weekend it was voiced even more insistently by his Vice-President, Joe Biden.

The administration's desire to "extend its hand" cannot be doubted. Yet Iran's response seemed to fall between non-existent and unfriendly. The launch of Iran's first domestically produced satellite a week ago spelt defiance, even if the timing was primarily to do with the Islamic Revolution's 30th anniversary.

Defiant Iran may be. But it is too early to write off all hope of rapprochement between the "Great Satan" and the lead nation of the "axis of evil". Normalising ties with Iran was always going to be a far trickier proposition than another major US foreign policy shift: pressing the "reset button", as Mr Biden has put it, on the chill in relations with Russia.

With Iran, recent historical baggage weighs much more heavily. Cultural contrasts are sharper. There have been no diplomatic relations for 30 years, nor any pretexts for keeping channels open. It is unfortunate, too, that Mr Obama's first month as President coincides with this most defensive of anniversaries. If ever a time was ill-suited to an opening to the US, the anniversary of the revolution is it. Iranian elections in June will not help either: anti-Americanism still wins votes.

Hopeful onlookers must also realise that the US political system is almost unique in the acute policy turns a new President can effect. Even by American standards, though, Mr Obama has shown rare determination, both in repudiating much of what his predecessor stood for and in making his first deeds match the words of his campaign.

Most countries find it harder than the US to switch policy track, even after a change of leader. Entrenched interests must be squared, a divided public won over, deep-rooted national sensitivities observed. New directions have to be explored by stealth. At such times, words and deeds may conflict; enemies have to be outmanoeuvred rather than slain.

To shift policies without a leadership change is even more problematical, especially if the policy is as identified with national dignity as Tehran's quarrel with the US. Even if Iran elects a new president in June, expectations of a rapid U-turn might still be unrealistic.

None of this means, though, that change cannot happen. It means that if it does, it will probably be gradual and found in small print rather than headlines. It also means that old language will co-exist for a time alongside the new – which is why those who already discern a hostile response from Iran can find ample evidence.

But there is evidence on the positive side, too. In recent speeches, President Ahmadinejad has listed all the grievances Iran has accumulated with the US, from the 1953 coup on, and demanded an apology. He has also called on the US to halt its "threats" to Iran. Seen negatively, these might look like blocks to rapprochement; read positively, they could be fulfillable conditions, part of a plausible opening gambit.

Hopeful signals could also be divined in a speech delivered at the Munich Security Conference this weekend by Ali Larijani, the Speaker of Iran's parliament and former nuclear negotiator. While observing the same ritual of historical accusations and scepticism of US good faith, Mr Larijani described the inauguration of the new US administration as a "golden opportunity".

He insisted that nuclear weapons were "not part of our strategic plan" and set out a series of demands – including payment for undelivered nuclear fuel – that could be read as conditions for talks. In a lighter, but not insignificant remark, he recommended that the US stop the boxing match and learn to play chess instead.

As often happens with regimes broaching change, outsiders have to judge whether it is the new language or the old that is intended to distract. Is the real message from Tehran the old one, adorned with noisy novelties for protocol's sake? Or is the old language the noise, designed to placate conservative opinion and disguise the extent of rethinking. An optimist, I favour the second possibility. Three weeks after Barack Obama extended his hand, Iran's fist is not quite as tightly clenched as it was.