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New U.S.-Iran Dialogue: Psst. Mumble. Huh?

The New York Times
June 6, 1999, Sunday

TEHERAN is abuzz again, divided now over whether America really is still the Great Satan. And as usual, the ferocity of Iran's internal power struggles make it hard to know just what is going on.

This time, though, the confusion seems to run two ways. This Iranian row seems to have been prompted by American mixed signals -- tantalizing but ambiguous all the same -- about whether the United States is ready to go easier on Iran.

Unless you are in the Middle East, you may have missed all this; just about everywhere else, the crisis in Kosovo has exhausted people's attention. So here's a quick primer on the latest in American-Iranian relations -- the winks, nods and backhanded slaps that may amount to a lot or to absolutely nothing at all.

First, on April 12, President Clinton told a White House audience that Iran had been subjected to "quite a lot of abuse" over the years; it was important to tell people, he said, "Look, you have a right to be angry." In Iran, ears perked up, particularly among political moderates. Was this a first step toward a long-sought American apology?

Ten days later, a State Department official showed a colder hand. Certainly, said Martin S. Indyk, an Assistant Secretary of State, the United States wants dialogue with Iran, but first on the agenda would be those old subjects that make Iranians cringe: terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Aha, Iranian conservatives pronounced. A good-guy-bad-guy routine, nothing more than American mischief!

At the end of April came a flurry of paper from the American Government. One rule eased the way for Iranian scholars to travel to the United States, another softened sanctions half a notch by allowing food and medicine to be sold to Iran. Then came a State Department report that again identified Iran as a sponsor of terrorism -- but not, as in the past, as the world's leader in that field.

It all amounted to nothing more than a "diplomatic smile," complained Iran's Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharazzi. A better summation might have been that it simply left just about everyone more confused.

"These Americans are crooks," Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of Iran's judiciary, warned in one Friday sermon as he sounded the conservative line. "Why are some people so naive as to believe in them?"

By contrast, the moderate Iran Daily said it saw the beginning of "a new chapter" and declared: "It is high time to insure practical steps for normal ties."

It seems clear that Iran's President, Mohammed Khatami, is open to warmer ties with the United States. But he remains hemmed in by Iran's conservatives, led by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As recently as mid-May, a delegation of senior clerics appointed by Mr. Khamenei presented Mr. Khatami with a petition saying that the time was not right for Iranian-American relations to be restored.

Ever since those ties were broken off after the Iranian revolution of 1979, conservatives have tried to squelch talk of a detente. They have reminded just about anyone who would listen that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, once likened Iranian-American relations to those between sheep and wolf.

But for a year and a half now, Mr. Khatami's moderate Government and the Clinton Administration have been cautiously swapping hints of a willingness to explore moving toward warmer ties. And some Iranians, eager for improved trade, have begun to read into the American overtures a reason for rapprochement.

"The United States may still be a wolf, but Iran has turned into a lion," Mehdi Karrubi, a longtime anti-Western firebrand who has become a Khatami ally, declared last month, neatly suggesting that Mr. Khomeini's warnings belonged to a distant era.

Officially, Iran's Government has ruled out direct talks until Washington redresses past wrongs, presumably by lifting economic sanctions and unfreezing millions of dollars of Iranian assets held in America.

WASHINGTON, for its part, has said it is ready to talk -- but that there can be no revival of economic ties until Iran takes the concrete steps that Mr. Indyk outlined in his April 22 speech: halting support for terrorism, abandoning opposition to Middle East peace and giving up efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

In practical terms, that leaves the two countries at loggerheads, despite the feelers each has sent since January 1998, when Mr. Khatami, in a CNN interview, called for a "dialogue of civilizations" and in effect apologized for the November 1979 takeover of the United States Embassy in Teheran. Still, every subtle signal is carefully digested, and Mr. Clinton's remarks in April were hailed by moderate Iranian newspapers and some politicians as at least a first step toward an American apology.

The President's statement, which surprised even his foreign policy advisers, included this sentence: "I think sometimes it's quite important to tell people, 'Look, you have a right to be angry at something my country, or my culture, or others that are generally allied with us today, did to you 50 or 60 or 100 or 150 years ago.' "

In Iran, provincial governors welcomed the words as Mr. Clinton's "acceptance that the demands of the Iranian people are just." Mr. Khatami's Government, on the other hand, has had to be more circumspect; its continuing war with the powerful conservative bloc has left Mr. Khatami wary of being portrayed as bowing to the United States. In its official statements, Iran has gone so far as to say only that America might be showing "greater realism."

And, certainly, the hesitation also runs both ways. No matter how the Iranians or analysts of the Iranian-American relationship have tried to interpret this murky dialogue, Administration spokesmen keep insisting that American policy has not changed.


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