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Iranian, U.S. lawmakers meet for the first time in 20 years

BY: Barbara Slavin
USA TODAY
August 31, 2000

Iranian and U.S. lawmakers met for the first time in 20 years Wednesday night at a reception in New York City that could further ease tensions between the former allies and lead to a return visit by U.S. congressmen to Iran.

Also attending the reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were top figures in the U.S. Jewish community. Iran's Islamic government has been hostile to Israel. In July, it convicted 10 Jews of spying for Israel.

"This meeting is a major step forward," said Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American Iranian Council, a N.J.-based group that helped organize the event.

Iranian officials portrayed the U.S.-Iran encounter as secondary. They said their delegation, in New York for a meeting of international parliamentarians, had been invited to the museum to further Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's call for a "cultural" dialogue.

However, the presence of U.S. congressmen shattered a taboo. Since the United States broke diplomatic relations in 1980 in the aftermath of the Iranian seizure of U.S. hostages, there had been no acknowledged meetings between elected officials and few contacts between other senior officials.

Hopes rose that Iran would accept a U.S. call for a government-to-government dialogue after reformers swept Iranian elections in February. However, Iranians have been preoccupied with a domestic power struggle over who governs Iran -- elected officials or a supreme religious leader.

Iranian experts say officials have now been authorized to open contacts with the U.S. Congress.

Among those attending the reception were Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y. Mehdi Karroubi, speaker of Iran's newly elected parliament, headed the Iranian group.

"It was very positive," Specter said after the meeting. He said the U.S. group accompanied the Iranians on a tour of ancient Persian artifacts and had a chance to talk to Karroubi. Specter said he raised an earlier proposal for an exchange between Iranian and U.S. parliamentarians.

"No commitments were made, but the meeting we had this evening was a first step," the senator said.

"This must have been cleared at the highest levels in Tehran," said Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East expert at the Nixon Center.

Also attending were U.S. Jewish leaders, including Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. In an interview before the reception, Hoenlein said he had "no expectations" for progress on resolving the case of the 10 imprisoned Jews, whose case is under appeal.

Even so, Hoenlein said he viewed the meeting as "an opportunity to get our message across" and press for a reduction in Iranian hostility toward Israel and the Middle East peace process.

Iran's only Jewish member of parliament, Morris Motamed, was included in the delegation in what appeared to be a public relations gesture.

U.S. officials said the encounter was important on a symbolic level, but they held out little hope for a significant improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations anytime soon.

The Iranian delegation arrived in New York on Monday for the United Nations' Millennium Summit, which will be Sept. 6-8. Iran's Khatami and President Clinton will be among the world leaders attending the summit, but there are no plans for them to meet one-on-one.

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