- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

TEHRAN | President-elect Barack Obama has not yet been inaugurated, but some Iranians are already losing their optimism that he will change policy toward Iran after 30 years of estrangement.

An initial groundswell of enthusiasm among some Iranians has been replaced by caution and concern.

“Obama” means “he is with us” in Persian. But an Iranian weekly tabloid recently ran a headline saying “He is not with us.”

“Nothing will basically change with Obama,” said a foreign editor for one of Iran’s most prominent newspapers, who asked that only his first name, Reza, be used. “He is one of them; someone from the system, despite his slogans.”

The reported choice last week of Dennis Ross as the Obama administration’s Iran coordinator also is likely to be unpopular in the Iranian government. Mr. Ross is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that Iranians regard as extremely close to Israel. Israel has described Iran’s nuclear program, which Iran maintains is for peaceful purposes only, as a threat.

Keyhan, a hard-line newpaper close to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called Mr. Ross, a former Middle East negotiator, “a Zionist lobbyist in the U.S. administration.”

“Iranians have serious misgivings about Dennis Ross because of his close ties to the pro-Israel lobby … not to mention Ross’ recent writings that push for tough actions against Iran while de-prioritizing the Israel-Palestinian issue,” said Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former Iranian nuclear-issues negotiator.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama promised to open direct talks with Iran without preconditions. However, foreign-affairs specialists here predict he will focus first on domestic issues, particularly the economic crisis.

“To the extent that Obama is willing to devote energy to Iran, he will certainly consider the issue of how to respond to signals being sent by the current government,” said Nasser Hadian, a professor of international relations at Tehran University and a former lecturer at Columbia University in New York. “This will certainly take time, and he is in no hurry to respond to a request for talks.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad, like many other Iranians, publicly expressed doubts before the election that a black man could win the presidency. However, after the Nov. 4 vote, the Iranian leader sent the president-elect a letter of congratulations, which also reminded Mr. Obama of his “chance for change, which is given to him by the vote of American citizens.”

As the first letter sent by an Iranian official to an American president-elect, the contact was reported by Iranian official media as a letter of “admonition,” ignoring the first sentence which congratulated Mr. Obama.

The letter was criticized by several rivals of the president, including fellow hard-liners Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, and Ahmad Tavakoli, head of the parliament’s committee on international affairs.

However, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformer who headed former President Mohammad Khatami’s office during the first years of the Khatami government, welcomed the gesture, even though he has ridiculed Mr. Ahmadinejad in the past.

Mr. Abtahi wrote in his blog that sending such a letter was “a brave act” by Mr. Ahmadinejad and that he hoped the president would continue “such innovations.”

Mr. Obama has yet to reply to the letter. Asked about it at a news conference, he repeated calls for Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program.

While Mr. Ahmadinejad has reached out to Mr. Obama, there has been no such gesture from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a Shi’ite Muslim cleric who has been Iran’s supreme leader since 1989. He has the final say on foreign and defense policies of Iran.

The ayatollah’s last public remarks regarding the U.S. election were in late October. He said that Iran-U.S. problems are “deep” and not something that could change or be repaired “when someone comes to office or leaves it.”

However, Mr. Ahmadinejad almost certainly cleared his intention to send Mr. Obama a letter with the supreme leader.

Other influential figures in Iran have expressed disappointment that Mr. Obama has repeated Bush administration demands for Iran to suspend its nuclear program.

Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said recently at Friday prayers in Tehran that Mr. Obama was to blame for “repeating Bush’s mistakes about Iranian nuclear activities.”

Some observers here worry that Mr. Ahmadinejad might try to exploit any opening in U.S.-Iran relations to gain votes in June presidential elections. However, specialists such as Tehran University’s Mr. Hadian doubt there will be a breakthrough within the next six months.

Mr. Obama will wait to deal with Iran “because of his unfamiliarity with foreign policy, the financial crisis in America and the problems he faces in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq,” Mr. Hadian said.

The U.S. election campaign aroused enormous interest in Iran - more than any previous foreign vote - and even the official Islamic Republic Broadcasting system aired extensive coverage of the campaign and the results.

But ordinary citizens in Tehran, speaking in the aftermath of the elections, said they were pessimistic about how different the new U.S. president would be.

A supermarket owner in his 50s, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Saeid, pointed to the television set in his shop in northern Tehran that showed Palestinians killed and injured by Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

“[Mr. Obama] has not said anything about such a massacre,” Saeid said. “How could I count on him to consider my situation as a poor Iranian and suspend trade bans on the aviation industry of my country or to let us have something which [the Americans] do not like?”

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