By Elise Labott
Does recent - and rare - praise by Iran's supreme leader for President Barack Obama's efforts to dampen war talk suggest the regime is making an overture toward the United States?
According to Iran's state-run Press TV, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei welcomed Obama's statement that there is a "window of opportunity" to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis through diplomacy, calling such remarks positive. This week, Obama has tried to cool down the martial rhetoric, saying there is too much "loose talk" of war with Iran.
"This talk is good talk and shows an exit from illusion," Khamenei told Iran's Assembly of Experts, a senior clerical body, about Obama's remarks.
He also singled out Obama's comments about bringing the Iranian people to their knees with continued sanctions. That, he said, "shows the continuation of illusion in this issue."
But the supreme leader does have the final word on Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials believe. And he is not one to give props to the United States lightly. Khamenei did acknowledge Obama's pledge to enter into a dialogue with Iran upon taking office, but at the same time said Washington must change its actions. Still, he has never ruled out the possibility of better relations with the United States.
This time his comments come as Tehran and world powers are about to resume talks aimed and ending the nuclear standoff.
American officials admit the comments are intriguing and Iran watchers in the U.S. government are combing intelligence for signs as to what it might mean.
With Iran's recent parliamentary election reinforcing his power over rival hard-liners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khamenei may be feeling more secure. Khamenei declared the 64 percent turnout as a "victory," and said it would boost Iran's prestige and security. And having effectively beaten down the opposition movement, the regime's paranoia since the 2009 tumultuous elections seems to have subsided.
But Khamenei's remarks also may signal he fears the possibility of a military attack. Or he may be worried that continued sanctions may, in fact, bring Iranians to their knees, and bring about the regime's demise. Which is why, officials say, the administration is trying to determine to what degree the sanctions are actually biting. The supreme leader could be feeling enough of a pinch now to know that he could be in deeper trouble down the line.
Beyond that, officials are fairly sober and unexcited about Khamenei's flirting. Nobody is ignoring them, but neither is anyone viewing them as a serious overture on which to build.
If Khamenei was inclined to negotiate with America, there are plenty of channels through which to communicate a signal. For example, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and her counterpart have been known to trade messages; or Livia Leu Agosti, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, who has the unenviable job of protecting American interests in Tehran and therefore must act as a go-between for the two countries.
The Iranians also have close relations with Turkey, Russia, Oman and Iraq, all of which have been used on occasion as a third-party messenger. A wink and a nod from Khamenei at a public meeting is hardly being viewed in Washington as a genuine invitation to start a dialogue.
What's more, nothing in Iran's record since the two countries severed ties in 1979 suggests the Iranians have any desire to negotiate.
Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, this week hailed a "new chapter" in Iran's engagement with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog. But even as the six powers that negotiate with Iran - the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany - urged the regime to grant IAEA inspectors access to its Parchin military base, satellite images examined by the IAEA suggest cleanup activity is going on at the site, diplomatic sources said.
After denying the inspectors access to the site last month, amid concern the Iranians have conducted testing on nuclear components there, Iran offered this week to let the inspectors into Parchin. But officials caution a scrubbed site does not suggest the regime is ready to come clean on its nuclear program to allay U.S. concerns.
So, the White House says the policy of pressure on Iran will continue until Iran changes its behavior regarding its nuclear program.
Last month Khamenei called possession of nuclear weapons a "sin," which he said was against Islam. He repeated Iran's pledge not to seek nuclear weapons, calling them "costly and dangerous."
U.S. officials aren't taking Khamenei at his word. But perhaps the supreme leader is saying is that he doesn't take Obama at his word either, when he insists he's not ready to go to war.