The administration now distinguishes between Iran and the other countries that President Bush lumped together last year in an "axis of evil" and does not plan to target the Islamic Republic after the increasingly likely war in Iraq, a senior U.S. official said.
Despite growing concern about the regime's suspected nuclear weapons program, Iran's assistance in the war on terrorism, and the gradual evolution of liberal thought there puts it in a different category from Iraq or North Korea, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said in an interview. "The axis of evil was a valid comment, [but] I would note there's one dramatic difference between Iran and the other two axes of evil, and that would be its democracy. [And] you approach a democracy differently," Armitage said. "I wouldn't think they were next at all," he added.
Over the past 14 months, despite ongoing tensions and sometimes heated public rhetoric, U.S. and Iranian officials have held quiet discussions about a growing list of overlapping interests, American officials confirmed. The discussions, first on Afghanistan and now on Iraq, were often at international meetings, although informal contacts also have taken place, the sources said.
Iran shares a long border with Iraq, and it has long hosted Iraqi opposition groups now supported by the United States.
During four earlier administrations, Washington and Tehran have tried public and back-channel overtures that all failed to develop. But the deepening U.S. involvement on all of Iran's borders -- in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Central Asia, along the Persian Gulf and now in Turkey and Iraq -- has nudged the two countries into increasingly frequent discussions since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to U.S. officials.
The discussions, they add, don't mark the onset of a formal dialogue or a diplomatic thaw five years after Iranian President Mohammad Khatami proposed bringing down the "wall of mistrust" that has characterized relations since the 1979-81 hostage drama in which 52 Americans were held for 444 days.
In his State of the Union address this year, Bush said Tehran's religious regime "represses its people, pursues weapons of mass destruction and supports terror."
Yet the contacts have been tentatively encouraging, the sources added.
The United States hopes Iran will play the same kind of role it did during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2001 rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Tehran promised to remain neutral in the latter conflict and help conduct search-and-rescue operations if American pilots were shot down. The U.S. hopes it will do the same if there is war with Iraq.
Iran is among the countries opposed to U.S. military intervention in Iraq, especially without a U.N. mandate, according to Iranian officials.
At celebrations this week to mark the 24th anniversary of Iran's 1979 revolution, Khatami said an American attack on Iraq "is in line with [the United States'] unilateral policy and illegitimate interference in the future of other countries."
Khatami acknowledged, however, that opposition to the war "does not mean that we are content with the Iraqi regime." Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, triggering a war that lasted eight years and inflicted hundreds of thousands of Iranian casualties, some from Iraq's use of chemical weapons.
Tehran's main concerns, Iranian officials stress, have been with the postwar process and new Iraqi leadership.
Khatami, whose domestic reform agenda and overtures to the outside world have been stalled by religious hard-liners, also warned Washington this week not to intervene in Iran. "America has tested its luck once in confronting this nation by supporting the [former] shah's regime," he told tens of thousands at a Tehran rally. "I hope America would not ... test its luck once more."
The Nuclear Threat
Iran remains a divisive foreign policy issue within the Bush administration. U.S. concern has increased recently because of Tehran's plans to build two nuclear reactors, which were first revealed by opposition groups in August, and Iran's announcement Sunday of plans to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and to mine uranium.
Washington has also been concerned about Iran's construction, with Russia, of a 1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor in Bushehr, a project begun during the monarchy that was revived in the mid-1990s. Tehran says it needs to provide power for a population that has doubled since the revolution, but the United States believes that the reactors are a cover for obtaining sensitive technologies to develop a nuclear weapons program, the State Department said this week.
Construction of the two additional nuclear facilities could eventually help Iran produce weapons-usable fissile material, the State Department added.
A statement by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called Iran's plans to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and mine uranium "in stark contrast" to an earlier agreement with Moscow for Russia to supply fresh fuel for the life of the Bushehr reactor and then ship the spent fuel back to Russia.
"These plans for a complete fuel cycle clearly indicate Iran's intention to build the infrastructure for a nuclear weapons capability," Boucher said.
As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran can pursue peaceful uses of nuclear technology with oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA director-general and chief nuclear inspector in Iraq, said this week that he will call for tighter monitoring of Iranian facilities when he visits Tehran later this month.
"We'll be interested in what he'll find out," Armitage said. "There are a lot of things we don't fully know.... It's the unknown that worries us in Iran."
At the same time, however, the United States considers Iran a less immediate threat than either Iraq or North Korea. U.S. intelligence estimates that North Korea already has a nuclear weapons capability and that Iraq has nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons programs. Iran is still about seven years away from a nuclear capability, U.S. officials say.
Washington also remains concerned about the presence of Al Qaeda operatives in Iran, Armitage said. But the United States is uncertain about how much Khatami's government knows about or is involved in helping Al Qaeda agents, he said. And overall, Tehran has also done "some good things" in the war on terrorism since Sept. 11, he said.
Armitage also credited Iran for developing a new kind of "liberal thought" unusual in the region. "There's already a good bit of liberal thought," he said. "It's relatively liberal -- not the way you or I would describe it, but liberal thought already exists."