updated 7/28/2009 7:58:36 PM ET 2009-07-28T23:58:36

The U.S. is hearing only silence from Iran on its offers of dialogue. Iran's leaders, who initially seemed to welcome engagement, are turning inward to deal with the post-election crisis.

If Iran's rulers mention the West at all these days, it's to tell Iranians the U.S. and its allies are behind the turmoil.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hard-line allies have repeatedly blasted the West, saying it is trying to topple clerical rule by fueling the opposition protests that erupted in the wake of the disputed June 12 presidential election.

Still, rhetoric for a domestic audience, no matter how heated, is not a "no" to American diplomatic feelers.

Too much is in flux to answer the two main questions: Whether Khamenei and the rest of the leadership even want a dialogue — and, if they do, whether they are in a position to pursue it.

Much depends on how secure they feel in their confrontation with the opposition, which has posed the biggest challenge in decades to clerical rule by calling President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election victory illegitimate.

"The Iranian leaders may actually make an attempt toward a certain level of normalization with the West" in order to legitimize themselves with Iranians who want to ease tensions with the United States, said Rasool Nafisi, a Washington-based academic and Iran expert.

Equally, he said, "in order to show self-confidence, and prove that business is as usual, the leaders may refrain from any behavior that suggests a change in their attitude against the 'world arrogance'" — the hard-liners' term for the United States.

President Barack Obama's administration says it won't wait forever for the Iranians to make up their minds. Washington has set a vague deadline of this fall for Iran to respond.

The central dispute for the West is Iran's nuclear program, which the United States and its allies contend is secretly aimed at building a nuclear weapon. Tehran denies that, saying it aims only to generate electricity.

In a fiery July 16 speech, Ahmadinejad vowed to push ahead with the nuclear program. He said Iran wants "logic and negotiation" with the West but insisted the U.S. apologize for its interference in the elections. Iran, he declared, would become a world power that "will bring down the global arrogance."

Pressure from Israel
The U.S. is also under pressure from its top Mideast ally, Israel, which fears Iran will ultimately target it with a nuclear weapon. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak insisted on Monday that "all options are on the table," a reference to a possible Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Defense Minister Robert Gates sought to reassure the Israelis during talks in Jerusalem, promising that if Iran did not respond, Washington would seek tougher international sanctions. "The timetable the president laid out still seems to be viable and does not significantly raise the risks to anybody," he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that the U.S. is still reaching out to Tehran, but she acknowledged that given the election turmoil, "I don't think they have any capacity to make that kind of decision right now."

Before the presidential election, Iran's leadership appeared torn over the U.S. outreach. In April, Ahmadinejad said in a nationally televised speech that Iran "welcomes a hand extended to it should it really and truly be based on honesty, justice and respect" — the leadership's most positive response at the time.

Khamenei, who holds final say in all state matters in Iran, took a tougher line, saying the U.S. had to prove its hostility to Iran had changed.

Iran's leaders do not want to be pressured into concessions on its nuclear program, and for hard-liners, defiance of the U.S. is a key principle of the Islamic republic.

Hope for easing sanctions
Even so, some conservatives hope for an easing of U.S. and U.N. sanctions to boost Iran's ailing economy, and Iran's international allies Russia and China have been pressing for cooperation. The election threw Iran into chaos. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets, claiming that Ahmadinejad's victory was fraudulent and the real winner was opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who favors reforms at home and better ties with the West.

Khamenei decreed Ahmadinejad's win was valid, and security forces launched a fierce crackdown in which hundreds were arrested and at least 20 people — and by some accounts far more — were killed.

While trying to tamp down the opposition, Khamenei has been focused on building a bastion of support from hard-line clerics around himself and keeping his sometimes maverick ally Ahmadinejad in line.

Now Khamenei has other tangled calculations to make. Would opening to the West show strength or weakness in the face of his domestic opponents? Would it disillusion the hard-liners whose support he needs, and would it upset Iran's militant allies, like Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas?

Lone voice amid turmoil
Amid the turmoil, the lone voice talking specifics about the policy toward the U.S. has been Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Earlier this month, he said Iran would put together a package of proposals to present to Western powers that could be a basis for future talks. Nothing has been heard of the proposals since, and there are rumors that Mottaki will be replaced with a figure closer to Ahmadinejad in the new government the president is to announce in August.

"The already lethargic process of decision-making in Iran is even slower today," Nafisi said in an e-mail interview. He argues that the fall deadline "may prove too short."

Ali Ansari, director of the Iranian Institute at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, is skeptical the leadership will be willing or able to hold real talks after weeks of "blaming the West for all the ills in society."

"I don't think there will be anyone to engage with," he told a forum on U.S.-Iran policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, saying tightening sanctions is "more likely the way forward."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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