Iran’s President is notorious for his tirades against Israel. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, running for re-election in June, first made international headlines four years ago by calling for the Jewish state to be “wiped off the map.” Last week at a U.N. gathering, he denounced Zionism as a manifestation of racism. U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon publicly reprimanded Ahmadinejad for that outburst. So, it came as a surprise Sunday when Ahmadinejad told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, in effect, that the Islamic Republic would recognize the State of Israel if the Palestinians signed a two-state peace deal with Israel. “Whatever decision they take,” Ahmadinejad said, “is fine with us.”
Ahmadinejad’s uncharacteristic nod to Israel’s existence may herald an important change in Iranian foreign policy. Iran watchers believe that Ahmadinejad’s shift on Israel, subtle and tentative as it was, could be an attempt to send a positive signal to the U.S., in response to the olive branch President Obama extended during the Persian New Year. Ahmadinejad’s statement may be particularly important now, if seen as a prelude to next month’s talks on Iran’s nuclear program that will include U.S. diplomats for the first time. Breaking with the Bush administration’s open hostility to the “axis of evil,” and seeking to improve relations severed after the Iranian revolution in 1979, Obama told the Iranian regime last month that the U.S. was seeking “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.”
Yet, observes Trita Parsi, an expert on U.S.-Iranian relations, it’s too early to read anything definitive into Ahmadinejad’s latest statement about Israel. Though Ahmadinejad made the comment in a broadcast with a major U.S. television network reaching millions, Parsi notes, it seemed to come out as the result of the direct question posed by Stephanopoulos rather than as part of a clearly prepared statement. In the interview, Ahmadinejad also emphasized his well-rehearsed proposal for a referendum that he clearly hopes would enable the world’s 10 million Palestinians to put an end to Israel’s existence through the ballot box.
Ahmadinejad is softening his tone when he says that Iran would not stand in the way if Palestinians opted for the two-state solution, establishing their own state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and relinquishing claims to territory that constitute the State of Israel. Still, Parsi says, this simply echoes the view expressed by Ahmadinejad’s predecessors, including former President Mohammed Khatami. “For Ahmadinejad, this is a rather half-hearted shift, but it is important nonetheless,” Parsi says.
A reason for the ambivalence is wariness toward Obama’s diplomatic overture. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently took note of Obama’s kind words for Iran, but he questioned whether the new American President was simply concealing an iron first with a velvet glove. Although revolutionary ideology animates Iranian actions and rhetoric, Parsi believes that geopolitics is the main factor driving the Iranian regime’s attitudes toward Israel and the U.S. In his book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S., Parsi details a 2003 peace plan in which Iran essentially agreed to abandon terrorism and support Arab-Israeli peace negotiations in exchange for U.S. recognition of Iran’s security interests. The plan, Parsi says, was effectively scuttled after the Bush administration declined to explore Iran’s overture on the grounds that “we don’t speak to evil.”
Yet, even as Iran appears to be showing more confidence in the sincerity of Obama’s olive branch, other doubts may be guiding Iran’s response. One of them, Parsi says, is concern about whether Obama will be able to muster the political strength to pull off a rapprochement with Iran. “They are increasingly convinced that Obama is serious, and that he is pursuing something that is more strategic than tactical,” Parsi says. “But the question remains: can he deliver on this” Seen in this context, the jailing of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi on spy charges last week may have been a maneuver by the regime to manufacture a crisis in order to test Obama’s true resolve in mending U.S.-Iranian relations.
Parsi’s concern is that Iran will demand that Obama grant a major concession as an incentive to negotiate, ironically adopting the Bush administration’s policy of setting pre-conditions for talks. What may be holding the regime back, Parsi says, is a fear of failure. If Tehran snubs Obama’s olive branch, it will come under domestic and international pressure amid rising calls for more sanctions. But Parsi says the Iranians may worry that if they enter talks that then collapse, either because Obama was
setting a trap or because he couldn’t hold his part of the bargain, that would lead to greater international concensus for sanctions and even set the stage for something worse: war.
See TIME’s pictures of the week.