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Iran reformers urge U.S. to review policy

Tehran (Reuters) - Reformist members of parliament in Iran have urged the United States to take note of democratic changes in their country and move to normalise relations. The two countries, arch foes for more than two decades, have shown slight signs of thawing ties since reformists made a strong showing in Iran's February parliamentary elections.

"Today, Iran has become a model for pluralism in the Middle East," Elahe Koulaei, a leading reformist MP, told Reuters earlier this week. "America cannot ignore our new role." But the United States should take the first step, she said.

"The developments in Iran towards greater pluralism and rule of law has paved the way for detente with other countries. It is up to America to take advantage of the existing climate."

Washington has repeatedly called for official talks with Tehran to settle differences, dating back to the 1979 Islamic revolution which overthrew the U.S.-backed shah. But Iran has rejected these overtures, demanding first an end to U.S. economic sanctions against the Islamic republic and other "practical steps."

"If America shows flexibility and changes its policies for real and in practice, ties can expand to meet our two countries' interests," Koulaei said. Washington has made concessions to encourage President Mohammed Khatami's liberal reforms, but relations remain sour.

Keen as many MPs are for rapprochement, Iran's parliament has no mandate on strategic issues, including U.S. ties. Such power rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has publicly rejected mending relations with the United States.

But Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, a Khatami ally, had an apparently chance encounter with a group of U.S. senators while in New York for a UN meeting of world parliamentarians last month.

Such contacts in the past have led to outcry in Iran, sending officials and diplomats scurrying to deny them. But Karroubi was not scolded, at least in public, creating the impression he may have acted with approval from the top.

"Law-makers represent a nation. We are not in war with American people," said reformist MP Mohammed Ali Kuzehgar. "If our two peoples can have contacts, their representatives can too." The two nations resumed limited social contact after Khatami's 1997 election, ending nearly 20 years of animosity.

Shouts of "Death to America" and burning U.S. flag were once a staple of almost daily demonstrations in Iran. Washington, for its part, called Iran an "outlaw nation" or "rogue" state. Now the tone, at least, has changed.

"Our nation has always shown it respects a country that respects us. Iran and America can take...advantage of this new climate and try to reach an understanding," Kuzehgar said.

Instead of demonising all U.S. leaders, Iran appears to be trying to seek friends there, especially in Congress. Iran's improving image has already borne fruit, with a slight relaxation of the U.S. economic embargo.

But the bulk of sanctions remain in place and hurt Iran's economy. Washington's opposition makes it difficult for Iran to join the World Trade Organisation, to draw loans from international banks and attract investment from foreign firms. Reformists want to see an end to the waiting and some in the conservative camp broadly agree.

"The diplomacy of patience does not work," said Mohammed Sadeq Mahfouzi, an Islamic scholar and political insider. "Our future rests in peaceful coexistence with others. We cannot afford to give up historical opportunities.

"We must not be crippled by our fears. There is no need to fear talks with America if we are assured of our strong and independent identity," he said.


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