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Post-deal Iran asks if U.S. is still ‘Great Satan,’ or something less

TEHRAN, Iran >> Negotiating the nuclear agreement was a torturous, two-year process for Iran’s leaders, but a new kind of struggle is unfolding now in Iran, where the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Hassan Rouhani have begun to tackle a question Iranians have not thought about much since the revolution 37 years ago: How to deal with their great enemy, the United States, after having reached a compromise with it.

The two leaders are offering starkly opposing visions of Iran’s post-deal future, reflecting their divergent attitudes toward the "Great Satan."

"We have announced that we will not negotiate with the Americans on any issue other than the nuclear case," Khamenei said this month. Speaking to a group of hard-line students recently he was even more explicit, telling them to "prepare for the continuation of the fight against America."

By contrast, Rouhani said on Sunday that the nuclear agreement was "not the end of the way," but "a beginning for creating an atmosphere of friendship and cooperation with various countries."

How the opposing visions are ultimately resolved may be uncertain, but as the nuclear pact is carried out and the sanctions are lifted, Iran’s favorite scapegoat can no longer plausibly be regarded as the root of all evil in the world.

"Our Great Satan without sanctions is just not the same anymore," said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and supporter of Rouhani. "Perhaps we should use ‘lesser Satan’ now or something like that."

In a highly controlled society like Iran, the leaders rarely speak spontaneously, so there is a certain premeditated "good cop, bad cop" aspect to the public posturing about the United States. But the dueling perspectives also reflect the problem of fitting the new, softer image of the United States into Iran’s founding ideological narrative.

Those longing for Iran to be a normal country, with normal relations with the world, believe their time has finally come, no matter what the supreme leader is saying. By their lights, change is inevitable, and Khamenei is just protecting his political flank against the hard-line clerics and commanders who oppose the nuclear deal.

But other analysts say that misreads the situation, putting a naively optimistic spin on the motivations and intentions of an all-powerful supreme leader who, while cautious and calculating, remains a highly conservative force.

There are no outward indications that Khamenei is enthusiastic about rapprochement between Iran and the United States, these other analysts say. On the contrary, since August he has used every public speech to make clear that there will be no such thing, repeating last week that, deal or no deal, the United States remains the "Great Satan."

"This deal is a one-off agreement in our interest," said Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst close to Khamenei. "Not an attempt to mend ties with America."

Iran’s leader, they add, is a staunch ideologue who often says that he is "not a diplomat but a revolutionary," and the flexibility he has shown on the nuclear issue was out of self-interest, a calculated tactic to get sanctions lifted, not the start of a new era for Iran. To underline his point, he predicted last week that Israel would not exist in 25 years, drawing international criticism.

There will be no such thing as direct talks over other issues, like Iraq, Syria and Yemen. At best, some analysts say, Khamenei is awaiting what he calls in some speeches "positive steps" from the United States. He will "review" such actions before considering real relations.

"If they do not leave the region and keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, the leader doesn’t see any future in having relations with America," said one former Revolutionary Guards official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his position, adding, "For now, that does not seem likely to happen."

Whatever the effect on foreign relations, Khamenei’s genuine distrust of the United States is casting an increasingly dark shadow over Rouhani’s ambitions at home, which are always subject to a veto by the supreme leader, who retains the final word on all matters.

Over the past two years, the president, who came to power promising an end to Iran’s international isolation and a more "normal" life, has raised expectations among Iran’s middle class. He has done so while tiptoeing around the sensitive subject of establishing relations with the United States, which has become a symbol of the changes many people would like to see, such as more personal freedom and overhauling the archaic justice system.

Right after the nuclear agreement was signed, for example, some in Tehran called for abolishing the "death to America" slogan and predicted the reopening of the U.S. Embassy. Neither suggestion gained traction.

Now, in line with Khamenei’s recent remarks, the winds seem to be shifting. Night after night, state television features remarks by American politicians and Republican presidential candidates bashing the deal. Often, these are followed by I-told-you-so clips from Khamenei, saying "America cannot be trusted."

Rouhani’s supporters are taking note. "First, I predicted that direct flights between Tehran and New York would start in some weeks," said Mohammad Javad Mehreghan, a financial expert. "We were overwhelmed with joy. Now, I realize it will take years. This country won’t change overnight."

Many say Rouhani should be content with having prevented war over Iran’s nuclear program, unfrozen the country’s assets and opened the door to foreign investment. "That has all along been the real mandate given to the president," said Nader Karimi Joni, a pro-government journalist. "People who thought otherwise have been fooling themselves."

But the president is persevering, promising better relations with the West, a better economy and more personal freedom. To the trained Iranian ear, when Rouhani talks about more cooperation with "various countries," he means the United States.

Despite Khamenei’s hard line in public, however, most Iranians and some well-connected analysts say that he is more on Rouhani’s side than he lets on, and is merely hedging his bets in case something goes wrong. Otherwise, they say, why would he agree to a nuclear deal at all?

"In the end even the supreme leader wants to have better relations with America," said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the government. "But he is angry over the bad remarks coming out of the United States, so he wants to wait if the deal works before he allows relations to get better."

It was Khamenei himself who drew up the framework for talking to the United States on the nuclear issue. He allowed direct negotiations to take place only through a trusted foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iran’s original goal for the talks was not to solve problems with the United States, but to get sanctions lifted.

There was only one glitch in Khamenei’s carefully planned strategy, when in 2013 an overly enthusiastic Rouhani accepted a phone call from President Barack Obama. While the conversation created considerable excitement in the West, it did not go over well in Iran. Upon arrival in Tehran, Rouhani was pelted by hard-liners with eggs and a shoe.

Some Iranian reformist newspapers are predicting hopefully that Rouhani will meet Obama at the United Nations General Assembly this month. In contrast, last week a Friday Prayer leader said that Zarif had been told — for the time being at least — to cease any direct negotiations with the United States, though people close to Zarif deny this.

Many, perhaps most, Iranians — having had their hopes for change dashed numerous times in the past, most recently in 2009 — have few expectations that the nuclear agreement will fundamentally change anything.

"The deal will absolutely happen," said Karimi Joni, the journalist. But there will be no opening of embassies, direct flights to New York or American investments here, he predicted. "Unless the supreme leader thinks this is necessary for the continuation of the system. In that case it will happen immediately."

Others are not so sure, convinced that relations with the United States have been permanently altered, despite the supreme leader’s pronouncements.

"Whatever anybody says, America is less of an enemy and less hostile than it was before," said Ghasem Golbaf, the owner and publisher of several magazines. "The relation will change for the better. It’s just inevitable."

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