Iran Flirts With Idea of a New U.S. Relationship


The supreme leader says absolutely not. A top lawmaker says by all means. The Foreign Ministry says it's too early to talk about it.

It is little wonder that the Iranian public and foreign governments are scratching their heads over whether the Islamic Republic might end 22 years of official estrangement from the United States.

Almost daily, Iranian officials offer conflicting pronouncements about whether the country should deal directly with Americans in their war on terrorism, confine such discussions to the United Nations or keep its back turned on the "Great Satan," the U.S.

Iranian conservatives such as Mohsen Rezai, a key player in clerical politics, dismiss the contradictory statements.

"None of those are official messages," Rezai, secretary-general of the policy-coordinating Expediency Council, said during an interview in his office Monday. "I don't think it will have any effect" on U.S.-Iran relations.

Only supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can set foreign policy, he said.

But it's clear that the reform-minded among Iran's leaders see an opportunity to heal the rift between the two countries created when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized by militants on Nov. 4, 1979.

Golamheidar Ebrahimbai-Salami, a member of the Majlis, or parliament, said last week that he and other lawmakers on a special commission considering the crisis in Afghanistan had approved of engaging in talks with the U.S.

"Holding negotiations with the United States is different from having diplomatic ties with that country," he said.

Iran's conservative clerics, however, who maintain control over the armed forces, the judiciary and the media, blasted the idea of U.S.-Iran talks. And within 72 hours, the final arbiter of Iranian foreign policy, Khamenei, weighed in and quashed any notion of dealing with the United States, which he described as pursuing "illegitimate interests in Afghanistan."

During a speech in the central city of Esfahan, Khamenei also chastised Iranian officials who publicly express opposing views, saying "they should follow the constitutional commitment to follow the leadership on sensitive matters."

"Otherwise, their legitimacy within the Islamic government is in question," he warned.

But political observers say that such admonitions, even from the highest authority, cannot stop the wave of contrary opinions being expressed to a populace weary of economic hardships and religious restrictions. The division between Iran's two main political camps has been reinforced by the question of whether to start a dialogue with Washington, these observers say.

Yet the various messages from officials are not as different as they appear at first glance.

For one thing, reformists and ultraconservatives agree that Western bombing of Afghanistan must stop. State-controlled media regularly quote popular and reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami as calling for an end to the airstrikes.

Another way reformists side with conservatives, albeit reluctantly, is by acknowledging that foreign policy must ultimately be decided by Khamenei, who has not wavered in his disdain for the U.S. government.

"The Foreign Ministry doesn't dare even to drink a glass of water without his permission," said reformist newspaper editor Saeed Laylez. "The West knows from where to hear the final say. The rest is just fodder for domestic consumption."

Still, officials on both sides seem to be trying to mend fences.

Last month, for example, there were headlines here after Iran's representative to the United Nations, Hadi Nejad Hosseinian, had a dinner meeting in Washington with a number of U.S. senators. Both sides talked of the evening as a pleasant exchange rather than a diplomatic overture.

Any notion of such an overture, in fact, ruffles Iranian feathers, whether reformist or conservative. Each time Iran's leaders think they might be seen as making the first move, they pull back.

In mid-October, after reports here that the U.S. had received offers of help from Iran in the war on terrorism, a Foreign Ministry spokesman quickly denied it. Any help to lost or wounded soldiers would be provided as called for by U.N. provisions, the spokesman said.

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi insisted on the need for a U.N. context for any dialogue between Washington and Tehran, and he ruled out direct talks with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at a meeting scheduled in New York next week for representatives from the U.S., Russia and the six countries bordering Afghanistan.

Direct contact "hasn't been on the agenda," Kharrazi's spokesman, Hamid-Reza Asafi, said Monday. "The reason for this is that we are not sure about the sincerity of the Americans. We're not sure if they've reconsidered their policies of the past."

Nonetheless, even the more conservative Iranian officials, such as Rezai, appear hopeful that the relationship with the United States will improve. It's just that the U.S. will have to take the lead, Rezai said.

"Iran has to feel that America wants to talk from a new respect and rationalism," he said, "like the kind of relations it has with Japan and Europe."


Special correspondent Azadeh Moaveni contributed to this report.

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