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Trita Parsi Headshot

Did Obama Wink at Tehran?

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While millions around the globe were glued to their TVs listening to President Obama's message of hope, decision-makers in Tehran were looking for a single-phrase alone: Mutual respect. Obama didn't disappoint.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said in his address to the 1.5 million man strong crowd on the Washington mall.

"Mutual respect" has become an almost mysterious term in US-Iran relations. The Iranians have repeatedly stated that improved US-Iran relations only can come about once the two countries negotiate with each other as equals, with "mutual respect." The rather ambiguous term has often bewildered US officials, not understanding what the Iranians exactly are demanding of the US. "What does this "mutual respect" mumbo-jumbo mean?," a US lawmaker once asked me? "Why don't they just say what they want?"

While in the American point of view the US-Iran conflict is rooted in policy differences and differing visions for the Middle East, to the Iranians it is just as much about discarding an uneven relationship - that between a master and a servant. The term "mutual respect" is so critical to Tehran that the Iranians even included it in their 2003 negotiation offer to the Bush administration. (The Bush White House never responded to the proposal, a move interpreted by Tehran as a sign of utter disrespect).

Tehran will likely interpret Obama's declared interest in finding a new way forward based on mutual respect as a clear - and very positive - signal to the Middle East in general, and to Iran in particular.

While positive signals are important, perhaps even necessary, they are not sufficient. If Obama intended this passage of the inaugural address to serve as a signal to Tehran - or even more pointedly, his promise to extend a hand to hostile nations if they are willing to unclench their fist - it would not be the first time that an incoming president would use this occasion to reach out to Iran.

In 1989, George H. Bush said in regards to Iran that "goodwill begets goodwill. Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on." Tehran interpreted Bush's statement as an invitation for an Iranian goodwill gesture. They responded by pressuring Hezbollah to release all American hostages in Lebanon and by tacitly supporting the U.S. during the first Persian Gulf War.

But contrary to Bush's promise, goodwill only begot ill-will. "When the hostages were all released," then-National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft told me, "we didn't do anything."

The U.S. did not respond to the release of the hostages and Iranian cooperation in the Persian Gulf War did not lead to an inclusive Persian Gulf security arrangement that would recognize a legitimate role for Iran in the region.

Now, exactly 20 years later, goodwill - and reciprocation - is needed more than ever before. Obama has on his first day in office taken an important step by beginning to change America's vocabulary on Iran.

With a timely response by Tehran, and proper follow up by both sides, they can go beyond vocabulary and symbolism and begin addressing the substance of their dysfunctional relationship.

Tehran should take a risk and wink back.