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Iran's Factions Are Uniting on Détente With U.S.

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 toward rapprochement.

Once the hostage-takers became reformers, they modified their public position.

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, too.''

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 criticism.

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 relations.

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.


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