- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

TEHRAN, IRAN (AP) - The Obama administration is reaching out to Iran. In return, Iran is _ well, it’s complicated. The Islamic republic sentenced an American journalist to eight years in prison and launched a fervent new campaign to brand U.S. ally Israel as racist. And in the middle of all that, it said it was ready for a new beginning in relations with the U.S. after three decades of diplomatic stalemate.

The mixed messages and flip-flopping are evidence of a tug-of-war within Iran’s ruling class between those who want to move closer to Washington and those resisting the change, all tremendously complicated by June 12 presidential elections. Both domestic and international considerations play strong roles.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is running for another term, is a deeply polarizing figure who has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, denied the Holocaust and insists Iran will never give up uranium enrichment.

On Monday at a U.N. anti-racism conference, he called Israel “most cruel and repressive racist regime,” prompting diplomats from every European Union country to walk out, drawing condemnation from Israel _ and earning him a hero’s welcome at Tehran’s airport Tuesday, with hundreds of well-wishers offering bouquets of flowers.

On April 11 he announced the opening of a new plant for developing uranium fuel and said Iran has increased the number and quality of centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facility, though U.S. officials expressed doubt about the latter claim.

And yet only days earlier, Ahmadinejad responded to a U.S. offer for better relations by saying, “The Iranian nation welcomes a hand extended to it should it really and truly be based on honesty, justice and respect” _ an unusually conciliatory tone for the Iranian leader.

Nowhere are the divisions laid more bare than in the case of 31-year-old Roxana Saberi, accused of spying for America in charges that Washington calls baseless.

Saberi was convicted last week by the Revolutionary Court after a closed-door trial that her father said lasted about 15 minutes. The development was seen as posturing by Iran’s ruling clerics, who don’t want to appear to be conceding to U.S. pressure as the two countries edge toward the negotiating table.

But since then, Iran appears to be steadily backing off. Ahmadinejad made a highly unusual request this week to Tehran’s chief prosecutor to allow Saberi and a jailed Canadian-Iranian blogger the chance to fully defend themselves. The judiciary chief ordered a full investigation of the American’s case during the appeal. And on Tuesday, the judiciary spokesman said Saberi’s sentence might be reconsidered on appeal _ a hint that her sentence could be commuted.

Ahmadinejad could have his eye on the election as he softens his stance on Saberi. Though he has the backing of powerful hard-liners, his popularity is waning among voters who say he spends too much time slamming the U.S. and Israel and not enough trying to fix the economy, which suffers from high inflation and unemployment.

His top opponent is former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, a reformist who supports better ties with the United States and appeals to many younger voters, 40 percent of the electorate.

“Ahmadinejad is in an awkward position because his hard-line political backers are averse to warming relations with the U.S., yet he has to appeal to a young electorate which overwhelmingly favors restoring relations with Washington,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the U.S. capital.

Ahmadinejad is also trying to gain favor with Washington, which broke off ties after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. The U.S., along with major European countries and China, have invited Iran to a new round of nuclear talks, which could provide a forum for Washington and Tehran to begin broader discussions.

“His intervention is a political decision aimed at paving the way to resume ties with the U.S. and get concessions from Washington,” legal affairs expert Saleh Nikbakht said in Iran.

Iran’s nuclear program has been the most contentious issue between the two nations. Washington believes it is secretly aimed at building nuclear weapons; oil-rich Iran says it’s for generating electricity. Iran has repeatedly refused to stop enriching uranium despite three rounds of sanctions from the U.N. Security Council.

As for Saberi, some analysts say Iran is holding her as a card in a complex political game, expecting concessions from Washington in return for her release. U.S. officials have indicated Iran would gain U.S. goodwill if the Iranians “responded in a positive way” to their demands to free the journalist.


Johnson reported from Cairo.

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