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Offers Of Openings To Iran

Background and analysis by CBS News State Department reporter Charles Wolfson.

Fulfilling a campaign promise and breaking new diplomatic ground at the same time, President Barack Obama has appealed to both Iran's leaders and its people for "the promise of a new day."

In a videotaped message (with subtitles in Farsi) to mark the start of Nowruz, an ancient festival which is the most important holiday celebrated in Iran, Mr. Obama made clear his departure from the Bush administration's policy of isolating Tehran.

The word Nowruz actually means "new day" and the symbolism of using the holiday as a pretext to appeal to Iranians will not be lost on its intended audience.

That said, the immediate response from the leadership in Tehran not only was not to embrace Washington's offer but was in fact to ignore it.

Of more importance will be Tehran's long-term response.

"The message is respect," said Iran expert Patrick Clawson of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The message is also that the United States government is not going to dramatically change its policies in the region the way that some Iranian leaders were expecting Obama might do."

For Mr. Obama's part, he acknowledged up-front the "serious differences" between the two countries, but said his administration "is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us …"

And what a list of differences it is: Washington, along with its allies, wants to curtail what is seen as Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons; it wants Iran to stop supporting such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which Washington sees as terrorist organizations; it would like Tehran to stop interfering in Iraqi politics and stop undermining efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

On the most important issue (Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons), Washington has been allowing Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to take the lead. These talks have mostly taken place the past few years with Washington either absent from the table or just sitting in on discussions, with instructions not to negotiate with Iranian officials.

Mr. Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, have both said they are willing to "extend an open hand," but first the leadership in Tehran "must unclench its fist."

So far, the steps taken have been small. Clinton, at a recent NATO meeting, invited Iranian participation in an upcoming meeting on Afghanistan. Now comes Mr. Obama's video greeting.

Analyst Clawson said, "This is about leverage. And the U S needs more leverage over Iranian leaders if we want successful negotiations. So, we wheeled out the Obama card."

A senior European diplomat, who asked not to be identified by name, recently told reporters in Washington that "The Americans, by engaging with Iran, are changing the rules of the game." What he means is that while the so-called P-5+1 talks involving our allies used to be the main diplomatic venue for contact, any new direct U.S.-Iran talks would change the dynamic of negotiations. While it wouldn't mean the end of the P-5+1 process, the main effort to get Iran to stand down from its nuclear ambitions would be hammered out in direct talks, something Iran has said it wanted but which the Bush administration would not agree to do.

The U.N.'s and other international financial sanctions have been imposed on Tehran but that has not been enough to stop Iran's nuclear program, although there are signs Iran is feeling some impact from the sanctions. Reduced revenue from falling oil prices is another factor putting a crimp in Iran's economy.

Even in a scenario where Iran signals a willingness to negotiate, the senior European diplomat cautions that progress is not a foregone conclusion. One problem, he says, is that the leadership in Tehran is split, that various power centers play off against each other, and that it really isn't such a simple matter to find the right negotiating partner in Tehran. Add to this the fact that there is a presidential election coming to Iran in June and any decision made now will have to be seen in the light of its domestic political impact, not simply how it might relate to solving the issues under discussion.

Another interested party in all this is Israel, which feels a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to its survival. Israeli leaders, who are now forming a new government themselves, have said it will not allow Iran to gain a nuclear capability, and that threat is something both Washington and Tehran have to take into account as each pursues any change in policy. This is all the more important a factor because Israel thinks Iran will gain nuclear capability faster than Washington does.

Finally, the Iranians are known to be excellent negotiators and, as the senior European diplomat points out, if the Iranians decide to engage, they'll try to extend the talks to enable more progress to be made on the nuclear front. The Americans, he predicts, will have difficulty managing the talks to see that they do not drag on and on and on, until it is too late to stop Iran from getting what it so badly seems to want.