Tony Karon writes: Such is the chasm between Washington and Tehran that last week’s comments by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei on President Barack Obama’s recent speech verged on geopolitical flirting: “We heard two days ago that the U.S. president said that (they) are not thinking about war with Iran,” said Khamenei. “These words are good words and an exit from delusion.” He also spoke of a “window of opportunity” for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program — echoing President Obama’s sentiments in his address to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Nobody expects that the exchange marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship, of course, but both sides may have reasons to at least keep the other interested in a protracted courtship.Obama had certainly issued something of a diplomatic come-on, noting appreciatively in an interview with The Atlantic that the Supreme Leader had reiterated just weeks ago that nuclear weapons are “a sin against Islam” and that Iran doesn’t want them. “The point is that for them to prove to the international community that their intentions are peaceful and that they are, in fact, not pursuing weapons, is not inconsistent with what they’ve said,” Obama said. “So it doesn’t require them to knuckle under to us. What it does require is for them to actually show to the world that there is consistency between their actions and their statements.”
Such soothing words across the epic divide are hardly naive: Both men are well aware of the difficulty they’ll face in securing any rapprochement, and neither may be particularly interested in a long-term relationship. Obama emphasized that Iran would have to earn the trust of the international community regardless of its statements, and his Administration also painted Khamenei’s comments on nuclear weapons being “sinful” as if they had come in response to the growing pain inflicted by sanctions. (In fact, Khamenei was simply reiterating a position he’d first publicized in an August 2005 fatwa.) Khamenei scolded Obama for suggesting that sanctions would bring Iran to its knees, and warned that Iran would not bow under pressure and threats.
The fact that both sides are expressing some openness to tamping down tensions — and plan to resume nuclear talks through the format of the P5+1, a group comprising the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia that negotiates nuclear issues with Iran — has certainly reassured oil markets, which fell last week on the news of renewed negotiations after being ratcheted up by war talk. Curiously enough, though, whereas Iran is typically accused of “playing for time” at the negotiating table, this time around the P5+1 may have their own reasons for taking things slowly. While Iran is steadily acquiring the technological capability that would enable it to create a bomb, Western powers don’t believe Tehran is racing to build nuclear weapons. And they have become increasingly concerned in recent months about stopping Israel from launching a potentially disastrous war by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.