Iran's Factions Are Uniting on Détente With
By By Geneive Abdo
International Herald Tribune
September 13, 2000
TEHRAN - Contacts between high-ranking Iranian and U.S. officials in
New York last week revealed publicly for the first time that both sides
of Iran's factional divide favor an eventual end to the 21-year freeze
in relations, analysts and diplomats said Sunday.
Meetings related to the Millennium Summit of nearly 150 world leaders
at the United Nations last week signaled that Iran's conservative establishment
is willing to admit in public what until now they had acknowledged onlyin
private: relations with the so-called Great Satan could produce economic
rewards too lucrative to pass up.
The clearest sign of this development came in a meeting that Iran's
parliamentary speaker, Mehdi Karroubi, and other lawmakers had with several
U.S counterparts at a reception at the New York Metropolitan Museum of
Art. Mr. Karroubi, a veteran revolutionary cleric with ties to both the
reformist and conservative camps, described the encounter as accidental.
Analysts, however, said that such a meeting could not have occurred
without general, if not explicit, sanction from high-level figures within
Iran's clerical establishment, which has publicly denounced any reconciliation
with the United States.
''Karroubi's meeting was totally unexpected. But he must have done this
with permission or knowledge from someone at the top,'' said an Iranian
political analyst who is an expert on U.S.-Iran relations. ''This is a
departure from the past because although the conservatives want to eventually
restore relations, they didn't want it to happen when President Khatami
was in power. They didn't want the reformers to get the credit.''
Public opinion in Iran overwhelmingly supports reconciliation with the
United States, and such a popular move would undoubtedly redound to the
benefit of President Mohammed Khatami, who has done more than any other
recent Iranian leader to reshape the West's perception of the Islamic Republic.
But Iranian policy has been dominated for two decades by anti-Americanism.
Many of the reformers who now hold positions of influence in Mr. Khatami's
movement were among the student militants who held Americans hostage for
444 days in 1979, an event that has remained the greatest single obstacle
Once the hostage-takers became reformers, they modified their public
Upon returning Saturday to Iran from New York, Mr. Khatami said the
United States should alter its position based on the changes in Iran since
the revolution. ''The United States is still throwing baseless allegations
against Iran,'' he said. ''Now that the world has accepted that Iran has
something new, fresh and logical to say, the U.S. should recognize it,
He also appeared unimpressed by gestures from President Bill Clinton
and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the United Nations, where
Mr. Clinton and Ms. Albright listened attentively to a speech Mr. Khatami
delivered. ''This does not solve the problem,'' Mr. Khatami said. ''America's
behavior should be basically changed. They should compensate for the problems
they have created in the past.''
Mr. Khatami has consistently said that relations could improve if the
United States apologized for many perceived misdeeds, including the CIA's
involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew the government of Prime Minister
Mohammed Mossadegh and restored Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power.
The United States has insisted that Iran end its support for militant
Islamic groups, such as Hezbollah, which waged a battle for two decades
against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. Iran insists that it halted
Hezbollah funding years ago.
Washington also claims that Iran is seeking to develop weapons of mass
destruction, in particular long-range missiles. Tehran denies the charges.
The merchants of Tehran's central bazaar, who still dominate much of
the private economy and have provided much of the backing for Iran's conservative
clerics, stand to reap the greatest immediate reward from reconciliation
with the United States.
For two decades, Iran's conservatives have based a large part of their
political and ideological strength on an anti-American policy. An editorial
in the hard-line newspaper Jomhuri-ya Eslami recently asserted that if
the conservatives surrendered their anti-American rhetoric, there would
be little left of the revolution.
But the mild reaction to reports in the hard-line press of Mr. Karroubi's
meetings with the Americans has provided further proof of a shift in Iran's
position. Generally, the newspapers harshly condemn contacts abroad between
Iranians and Westerners. But Mr. Karroubi's meetings received only token
He also held meetings with representatives of three oil companies: Conoco,
Chevron and Exxon Mobil. U.S. oil companies are applying increasing pressure
on Washington to end sanctions that have prevented U.S. energy firms from
signing oil contacts with Iran, No. 2 producer in the Organization of Petroleum
Exporting Countries. Five years ago President Bill Clinton imposed the
unilateral embargo. Since then, U.S. oil companies have been forced to
wait on the sidelines as French, British and other European companies signed
contracts to secure lucrative Iranian oil and gas projects.
The United States should lift sanctions and end its hostile behavior,
Mr. Karroubi was quoted as saying.
A dramatic shift in the balance of power in Iran over the last six months
could also help improve relations with Washington, analysts said. The conservatives
have reasserted their vast institutional power and in the process diluted
the strength of the presidency. In a series of recent speeches, Mr. Khatami
admitted as much. Speaking at the United Nations last week, he criticized
his followers for having unrealistic expectations of political and social
reform, which his government is not able to deliver.
Publicly, Western governments are eager to see an improvement in U.S.-Iranian
Privately, Western business is less sanguine. Britain, which restored
relations in 1999, has the most to lose. Britain is the leading Western
power in the Islamic Republic and its companies have recently made large
investments in the oil industry.