Tehran's Definite 'Maybe'

Even in midsummer, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, wears the three-piece suit of a traditional diplomat. But faithful to the dress code of the Iranian revolution, he doesn't wear a necktie. That mix of symbols is a good snapshot of Iran's hard-and-soft foreign policy these days.

The Iranians are signaling that they want talks with the West -- and hinting that they are ready for a serious dialogue with the Great Satan in Washington. But while they discuss engagement, they remain wary of it. The Iranians are almost coquettish: They like being wooed, and they enjoy being the center of attention, but they aren't quite ready to say yes.

And even as they talk of diplomacy, the Iranians continue to brandish the weapons of war. The latest example was the test firing yesterday of a Shahab-3 missile, which with its 1,200-mile range is capable of hitting Israel. "Our hands are always on the trigger," said Revolutionary Guard Gen. Hossein Salami.

The mixed messages are especially evident on the nuclear issue, where Mottaki raised hopes last week that the Iranians might respond favorably to a new proposal for negotiations, then in his formal response didn't give a clear, yes-or-no answer. The United States and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council had proposed a "freeze-for-freeze" deal, in which Iran would agree not to expand its nuclear program in exchange for a freeze on additional U.N. sanctions, as a prelude to negotiations. But in a three-page letter to Javier Solana, the European Union's top diplomat, Mottaki offered only a noncommittal "generic response," according to one person who read the letter.

What course is Iran pursuing? The leaders themselves probably aren't sure. A lively debate is under way in Tehran, with hard-liners arguing that the West is weak and that Iran should refuse any compromises, and a more pragmatic faction contending that now is the time for Iran to come to the table and consolidate its gains.

This debate is surfacing in the Iranian press and in some statements by senior officials, according to an analysis by the "Persia House" group at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton: They note "a widening rift between camps within the governing elite, as well as popular support for compromise."

Mottaki offered a glimpse of Iran's thinking during an interview here last week and a subsequent meeting with a group of reporters. Running through his remarks was a self-confidence that Iran is up in the Middle East while its adversaries, the United States and Israel, are down.

"There was a day when the passage of a U.S. warship offshore could change governments -- that's how much people feared the United States," he told me. "Today, America has 150,000 troops in Iraq and it is unable to provide security for Iraqis, or even for its own forces."

The Iranian diplomat discounted the threat of U.S. or Israeli military action. Talk of an American attack was just "psychological warfare," he said. As for Israel, after its difficulties in the 2006 Lebanon war, "the chance that the Israeli government will attack the region again is almost nil," he told the journalists. Paradoxically, perhaps, the Iranians trust American rationality -- and are convinced it would be folly for the Bush administration to attack Iran when so many U.S. troops are vulnerable in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When I pressed Mottaki on how Iran would respond if the next president proposed a broad diplomatic dialogue, he was cautious. He said that as a former Iranian ambassador to Japan, he had come to respect the Japanese approach of navigating unknown waters carefully. There is enormous mistrust between Iran and America, he said, so it is important to be realistic about what diplomacy can accomplish.

Some Iranian moderates have told me they would like to see a broad strategic dialogue between the two countries, similar to Henry Kissinger's breakthrough conversations with the Chinese in 1971. But Mottaki cautioned that, while it was easy to say "let's sit down and talk about everything," this approach might produce a diplomatic version of "tarouf" -- an Iranian expression for the ritual politeness in which people say things just to be nice. He seemed to prefer a process in which the two sides would initially discuss one or two pressing issues and, if they made progress, move on to a broader dialogue.

"The first word that diplomats are taught is compromise," Mottaki said at one point. But for a proud, prickly and supremely confident Iran, the first word right now seems to be "maybe." Learning the language of "yes" will take a long while.

David Ignatius