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U.S. Must Figure Out Puzzle That Is Iran Before Diplomatic Ties Can Be Renewed

By Hugh Pope
Wall Street Journal
Feb. 21, 2001

I veil my words in curtains, friends Let balladeers tease out their ends -- Hafez, 14th-century Persian poet

SHIRAZ, Iran -- The U.S. State Department says it's ready for talks on renewing diplomatic relations with Iran anywhere, anytime. Little wonder: While Iran is no longer necessary as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, a friendlier Iran could help U.S. efforts to isolate Iraq's Saddam Hussein, secure Persian Gulf oil supplies and promote Middle East peace.

But what does Iran want? Nobody seems to know, least of all the Iranians themselves. Although chants of "Death to America" and "Wipe out Israel" are still central to Friday prayer meetings all over the country, some Iranians insist Americans shouldn't take this too literally. "It's just a war of words," says Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri Shirazi, the bright-eyed leader of Friday prayers in this southern city, sitting behind a knee-high desk in a large, white room where guests sit on cushions around the walls. "How many Americans did we kill? None. We are not your enemy. We are your friend. Your trouble is that you cannot distinguish between the two."

What you see in Iran is never quite what you get. Straight talk is considered vulgar, almost rude. Shia Muslim clergymen debate the mantuq and the mafhum, or what is said and what should be understood. Persian poets revel in verses about wine and lovers, meaning religious ecstasy and God. Iranian business lawyers delight in conjuring up free-trade zones, which emasculate strict constitutional restrictions on foreign investment.

A quarter-century ago, this same Iran was the U.S. strategic kingpin in the Middle East, not to mention a huge market for American armaments and other products. The U.S. broke ties after revolutionary students took American diplomats hostage in 1979, holding them for 444 days (which makes restoring full relations a hard sell in Congress, too.)

Today, mainstream conservative and reformist factions of Iran's ruling elite -- which includes hostage-taking students from two decades ago -- both quietly favor restoring ties. Rhetorical condemnation of the "Great Satan" and U.S. flag-trampling ceremonies have subsided. But both sides want to take credit for a move that has broad public support, so both try to sabotage the efforts of the other. (Last year, for instance, hard-liners seized on a Berlin meeting of Germans and Iranians on the future of Iranian political reforms to jail pro-reformers who attended.)

If America wants to reopen its embassy -- now a high school for Iranian revolutionary guards, its brick walls painted with fading slogans and a Statue of Liberty with a spooky skull -- U.S. diplomats must pick their way through a maze of similar mind-games. "There's no one person running foreign policy, no fixed doctrine," says Mohammad Haidari, 56, an independent magazine editor in Tehran. Though he, too, favors restoring relations, his face lights up when he remembers the pre-revolutionary day he and a friend "beat the living daylights" out of two American soldiers for manhandling an Iranian woman in the street.

Currently, contacts between the U.S. and Iran have stalled on talks about exchanging diplomats and lifting the latest round of U.S. trade and investment sanctions slapped on Iran in 1995. The U.S. says it must be able to discuss allegations of Iran's links to terrorism and supposed attempts to build weapons of mass destruction. Iran finds this offensive. It notes that neighboring Pakistan has relations with the U.S. even though it has tested a nuclear bomb, has a military regime, is cosy with the even more fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan and harbors Islamist insurgents operating against India in Kashmir. And it was American-backed Iraq that used chemical weapons that injured 60,000 Iranians in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, not the other way round.

For all the rhetoric, Iranian respect for American things has survived surprisingly intact, partly because four million Iranians now live in the West. American models are evident in everything from wide kitchen cookers to military organization. Tehran's urban development has adopted U.S.-style expressways. "The relationship is love and hate; there is nothing in between," says Rocky Ansari, managing partner of Tehran legal advisers Cyrus Omron International.

Attracted by spreading Internet access, Iranian youth crave exposure to America and American things. But would they pay for the privilege once a new U.S. Embassy joins battle with this pirate kingdom of intellectual property? American software, its codes cracked by inventive Iranians, is cheaply available in copyright-free Tehran. "I love it when we log on and it says 'Welcome!' And all for free!" says a young computer buff.

Conversely, says he'd happily organize attacks to block the return of American business. He wants no truck with Americans or their global, ecology-exploiting capitalism -- and would fight the majority of Iranians who do. "We want a democracy of the mind, not of sheep-like numbers," he says at an office decorated with mementos from the front lines of the war against Iraq. Then, smiling, he adds: "Better run along now, before I take you hostage!"

Perhaps he was joking. Perhaps not. Ambiguities and deceptions have always been dear to Iranian hearts, says a respectable professor of literature who wants to be described only as the "wild one of Shiraz."

"It takes many years to learn the secret," he says, sitting dervish-like in white cotton leggings, folding and unfolding his ascetic limbs under a thin dark cloak. "And I'm not going to tell you what it is, because then it wouldn't be a secret anymore."


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