Iran and the U.S. / Still Playing Hard to Get

On the eve of Id al-Adha and the pilgrimage to Mecca, Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader, aired his political-ideological views in public.

In his blessing to the pilgrims he spoke of the failure of "arrogant America's" plots; the incurable problems and chaos inside the Zionist regime; the rise of Islam in neighboring states; Iran's amazing technological progress, achieved under severe economic sanctions, and the American warmongers' economic and political defeat.

The last point shows that Iran sees Barack Obama not as one of the warmongers but as a worthy American president, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote him in his congratulatory note.

But can this distinction ensure successful negotiations between Iran and the United States, as Obama wishes? Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Sunday that Iran would not stop enriching uranium and that Obama's carrot and stick approach was unacceptable.

On the other hand, Iran is well aware of its economic difficulties - high inflation of about 30 percent, oil prices diving to $40 a barrel while the Iranian budget was planned on $60 a barrel; a huge unemployment rate; a $40 billion trade deficit and some $17 billion in defaulted debt payments.

Iran faces presidential elections in six months, and economic woes will be the main campaign issue. Obama's hint of economic incentives is the "carrot" that he hopes will induce Tehran to change its policies. This is the heart of the American proposal, whose innovation is Obama's willingness to open direct talks.

Iran, for its part, assumes the U.S. has no military option against it and that Israel would not attack without America's backing. Obama wants to shift the military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, and Iran understands that he needs its cooperation with Iraq for this.

Finally, Iran assumes Russia and China will continue to protect it from embargoes. This leaves a gaping gulf between the Iranian and American approaches.