- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Iranian nuclear issue and the future of U.S.-Iran relations are among the most important and controversial subjects in the U.S. presidential campaign, and the results of the November election could have a tremendous impact on Iran.

Escalating international pressure over Iran’s nuclear program are giving Tehran a very hard time, and officials there are struggling to curtail the impact of sanctions on the Iranian economy.

Many in Tehran are hoping for a change in the international arena after the U.S. elections and are pinning their hopes on the Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, who has called for negotiations with Iran without preconditions.

Last week, an Iranian news agency close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Parseh Press, went so far as to write that Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is in New York for the annual U.N. meeting of heads of state and government, would try to meet Mr. Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering.

Although the chances of such a meeting are nonexistent - and would be political suicide for Mr. Obama - the story suggests that Mr. Ahmadinejad is eager for an end to enmity with the United States after nearly three decades of hostility.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s own term ends in August 2009, but there are vivid signs that he expects to be re-elected and serve until 2013. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dropped a hint recently that he backs a second term for Mr. Ahmadinejad, hailing the president’s efforts and urging him to plan for another four years.

In spite of internal political conflicts in both the United States and Iran, those advocating confrontation are in increasingly weak positions and supporters of dialogue are growing stronger.

Breaking the taboo on high-level meetings would be easier for Mr. Ahmadinejad than for anyone else in the regime, because no one can accuse him of betraying revolutionary values - unlike former President Mohammad Khatami, who was harshly criticized for making concessions to improve relations with the West.

Mr. Ahmadinejad also may find it easier to relaunch a relationship with Washington if the United States elects its first black president. This would be the clearest sign of a brand new America in the minds of the Iranian people and would help put an end to a historical portrait of the United States - for Iranian regime supporters - as a cruel and rude imperialist nation that supported the despotic shah.

Many Iranians sympathize with blacks in the U.S. and see them as oppressed. The perception is so strong that during the 1979-81 hostage crisis, the hostage holders declared their solidarity with other “oppressed minorities” and released 13 women and blacks.

Mr. Obama’s willingness to talk to Tehran without preconditions - if not at a presidential level from the start - also would help the Iranian government engage without losing face.

The history of attempts to improve relations between the two countries is riddled with missed opportunities, from the U.S. rejection of an Iranian oil contract with the Conoco company in 1995 to Iran’s rebuff of overtures in the second Clinton administration and the Bush administration’s failure to reply to an Iranian offer in 2003.

There are many decision makers in Tehran who have decided not to waste any new chances for melting the ice, and Mr. Ahmadinejad would regard negotiations without preconditions as a great achievement.

Of course, Iranian hopes about Mr. Obama may be overly optimistic. The Democratic presidential nominee has promised a hard line against Iran going nuclear, which he has called a “game changer” in the Middle East.

No one can guarantee that if Mr. Obama is elected, he won’t redouble sanctions and increase pressure over Iran’s human rights record. But in Tehran, there is hope for a sea change in U.S. attitudes - and policies - toward Iran.

Mehdi Jedinia is an Iranian freelance journalist.

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