Does the name Muhammad Qalibaf ring a bell? He is the mayor of Teheran and may be tapped by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. Qalibaf's selection could signal that the ayatollah wants a change of tone in his country's foreign relations. If that happens, or if by some fluke Mehdi Karroubi or Mir Hosein Mousavi - both former high-ranking officials - wind up capturing the presidency following first-round elections scheduled for June 12, we will be witnessing Khamenei's considered response to President Barack Obama's March 20 overture for improved relations. On the occasion of the Persian New Year, Obama told the people of Iran and its leaders: "The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right - but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or armsâ€¦." The president proffered "a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It's a future where the old divisions are overcomeâ€¦." Before wishing Iranians Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak he said, "There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: 'The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.'" Khamenei's instant retort before the multitudes in Mashad: "You change [and] our behavior will change. They say, 'We have extended a hand toward Iran.' What kind of hand is this? If the extended hand is covered with a velvet glove but underneath it the hand is made of cast-iron, this does not have a good meaning at all. "They are talking of extending a hand to Iran on the occasion of the New Year... At the same time, they are accusing Iran of terrorism and manufacturing nuclear weapons. We ask: Have you lifted the unjust sanctions against the Iranian people and returned [Iranian] assets you hold? Have you ended your absolute support for the Zionist regime?" Khamenei concluded on a conciliatory note: "We have no experience of this new president... We will wait and see. If you change your attitude, we will change, too. If you do not change, then our nation will build on its experience of the past 30 years." The most likely "change," in a world in which Obama has emerged as a formidable rhetorical adversary, would be to replace the coarse, populist Ahmadinejad with the more personable Qalibaf. IF THAT happens, Westerners of the "Walter Duranty School of International Relations," those who promote the notion that Iran's regime is essentially pragmatic and that it is "Israeli bellicosity" which needs reining in, will appear ever more convincing. Duranty was the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who sought to convince Americans during the 1930s that Stalin's Soviet Union was essentially pragmatic and downplayed the regime's genocidal crimes. Today's Durantyites argue that Obama's New Year speech contained warmed-over Bush administration accusations about Iran supporting terrorism and secretly working on nuclear weapons. They insist that Iran is no rogue state; that it treats its Jews with kid gloves; that its support for Hizbullah and Hamas is legitimate because, if presented with incentives, these "resistance groups" will quickly go mainstream; and that, finally, all the excited talk about the Iranian nuclear weapons is groundless. But even Western "realists" who reject Durantyite appeasement talk paternalistically about coaxing Iran into behaving more responsibly. They intuit that Iran's "true interest" lies in improved relations with the civilized world. It's only the mullahs' "well-grounded mistrust" of the West makes them exceedingly cautious. WERE THE stakes not so high, America's astute president, having inherited a calamitous economy, two wars and much else, could be forgiven for seeking to avoid confrontation with Iran - even if he rejects the apologists' line outright and thinks the realists are, well, unrealistic. In his heart of hearts, Obama surely knows that Khamenei's "price" for good relations is America's total capitulation to Persian imperial designs. To point this out is not to beat the drums of war, but to appeal for American clear-sightedness.