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What's on Tehran's Mind?

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- As U.S. and Iranian diplomats prepare for a crucial meeting in Baghdad this Monday, what's on Tehran's mind? The normal reportorial techniques aren't much help, since the Iranians aren't talking publicly. But we can get a sense of what they're thinking by using the columnist's ancient art of mind reading.

Tehran fears the same thing it has since 1979: an American plot to undermine the Islamic revolution. This suspicion of foreign conspiracies animates every Iranian decision. The Americans say they support Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, but Tehran doesn't fully believe it. Why would America create a friendly Shiite government in Iraq and thus give Iran more power in the region?

Tehran asks: What is Bush's real game? America's friends the Saudis favor a coup in Baghdad by Ayad Allawi, the former Iraqi interim prime minister who was trained by the master of all secret conspiracies, the British spy service MI-6. The American conspirator in chief, Vice President Dick Cheney, went to Riyadh this month and told the Saudis to support Iran's ally, Maliki. The Iranians are perplexed. If the Bush administration really does support Maliki, the Iranians want to hear it from Ambassador Ryan Crocker on May 28 in Baghdad.

In Tehran's mind, there looms the larger American conspiracy of regime change. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice disavowed this goal in a recent interview with the Financial Times, but she didn't halt spending from the $75 million fund created last year to broadcast pro-democracy messages to Iran and help Iranian NGOs. Tehran believes this money is really aimed at encouraging a "soft revolution'' in Iran, on the model of the recent color revolutions in Lebanon, Georgia and Ukraine.

That's why the Iranians arrested Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American who works for the Woodrow Wilson Center. They know she's no spy -- Iran's own counterintelligence service concluded that she had no espionage role. But the country's leaders want to send a message that they will imprison even a harmless grandmother to intimidate activists. The mullahs may be opening a dialogue with Washington, but they don't want ordinary Iranians to think that they, too, can consort with the Great Satan.

Iran hates negotiations. That's another truth that mind readers can discern. Tehran was so uncertain about who should meet with Crocker that its ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, had to return home for consultations. The Iranians don't like having to take positions before there is a consensus within the ruling elite, and on the question of dealing with America, there is still a battle raging. Pragmatists in Tehran quote former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about shared U.S. and Iranian national interests. But hard-liners associated with the Revolutionary Guard insist that any dialogue with America is a potential trap.

For Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the overriding task is to preserve the legitimacy of the revolution -- not an easy task in a country where the clerical rulers are unpopular. Khamenei wants a U.S.-Iranian dialogue about Iraq that generates enough domestic support so he can sign his name to it. In that sense, he is a follower more than a leader. Khamenei fears American attempts to play factional politics -- to play off pragmatists against hard-liners -- which will make his job as keeper of consensus more difficult. The Tehran rumor mill has it that Khamenei is very ill. That's another reason not to expect any bold breakthroughs from the Baghdad meeting. It's a moment for small steps, not giant leaps. For now, both countries would rather avoid the big intractable issue of Iran's nuclear program.

Iranian national pride is as fragile as the regime's sense of legitimacy. For that reason Iranians will bristle if the U.S. uses the Baghdad meeting to lecture them, dictate terms or make accusations. When Crocker asks Iran to stop sending deadly projectile IEDs to Iraq, the Iranians will deny doing so in the first place -- and then, if they choose, halt future shipments.

This is a dialogue founded on mutual mistrust. That isn't necessarily fatal -- detente between the America and the Soviet Union was also accompanied by deep suspicion. Iranian pragmatists would like to explore a wider agenda with a high-level American emissary -- someone like former Secretary of State James A. Baker -- but keep it secret, please. Tehran doesn't want to risk embarrassment until it has a clearer sense of America's intentions.

And what statement would Iran like to hear Monday from Crocker, and perhaps later from a more senior emissary? Something like this: "The United States is ready to deal with Iran in mutual respect, about issues of mutual concern.'' That sentence could begin a diplomatic dance that, at once, intrigues and frightens Iran.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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