President Barack Obama's public reach-out Friday to Iran was the right move, even though the initial public response to it was lukewarm.
The United States has pretended for about 20 years that it can afford to have bad relations with Iran. They date from the 1979 revolution and the hostage-taking at the American Embassy, improved at least clandestinely with the Reagan administration's Iran-contra arms deal and then hit bottom when President George W. Bush ranked Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his "axis of evil" address and pursued various regime-change schemes.
Mr. Obama, more realistically, intends to open a potentially fruitful dialogue with Iran - and there is every reason to. Iran is still trying to develop a nuclear capacity, perhaps to include weapons. It lies between Afghanistan and Iraq, the sites of America's two wars, and borders on Pakistan. It is a regional power with a population of 66 million and an army of nearly a million. Although the United States helped Iraq fight it in the 1980-88 war, Iran showed itself to be a crude but nonetheless effective military power.
Mr. Obama's opening sally was a three-minute video greeting he sent to the Iranian leaders and people on the occasion of the Persian New Year celebrations, which began Friday. He offered "a new beginning" and said that America seeks engagement that is "honest and grounded in mutual respect." He added that Iran must not expect to improve its standing in the world through terror or force of arms.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, replied tentatively Saturday, asking for less talk and more action to demonstrate new U.S. good will toward his country. It wasn't a rebuff, but it did not constitute eager acceptance of the president's olive branch either.
The mixed Iranian response was predictable. The exchange of top-level messages came with U.S. policy toward Iran still in the process of formulation in Washington, and with Iran itself in the middle of a campaign for a hotly contested presidential election scheduled for June. Iran's supreme leader is clearly not going to take a definitive position on improved relations with the United States at this juncture.
Mr. Obama himself needs to watch his back in Washington, given the powerful players in the United States with views on U.S. relations with Iran. These include American financial interests with a stake in preserving economic sanctions against Iran and the Israeli lobby which continues to push the Obama administration to take a more military approach to Iran, rather than the diplomacy he favors.
Actions reinforcing words might be the next step on both sides. Iran would like the United States to permit the resumption of sales of civilian aircraft spare parts to it and consideration of the unfreezing of some of its assets in the United States. In the wake of the trouble in Pakistan, the United States and NATO have been looking at supply routes through Iran for forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama spoke of "a future where the old divisions are overcome." This is possible, but it will probably be a slow process.