US wary as Iran tries to exorcise its demons

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The Independent Online
Within hours of Iranian President Khatami's appeal for a `dialogue' with the United States, Washington was demanding `deeds, not words' from the Iranian leader. As our Middle East correspondent explains, however, Iran is more anxious than ever to broaden its relationships with the outside world.

Iran has never been so anxious for contact with the outside world as it is today. Even under the Shah, that faithful ally of Washington - the so-called "Light of the Aryans" - Persia was an introverted, xenophobic nation.

All the more ironic, therefore, that the country which its enemies wish to portray as backward, medieval and degenerate should hold out its arms - through its newly elected President Mohamed Khatami - to the United States.

Yet this extraordinary transformation has now come to pass. The internal struggles with the revolution's old guard continue, but Mr Khatami - if he lives long enough to accomplish his ambitions - seems set on bringing Iran back into the comity of nations.

He knows, of course, that Washington's - and Israel's - attempt to isolate Iran has failed; the European Union and the Arabs who gathered for the Islamic summit in Tehran last week have seen to that.

But his remarkable press conference in Tehran on Sunday was a challenge to the US. Even his remarks on the Palestinians at last week's Islamic conference - that they should have a state, an end to occupation, the return of refugees - sounded almost identical to America's official policies on the Middle East.

Talking about "deeds not words" will not improve relations between Washington and Tehran. The US wants to talk about Iran's "terrorism" - something Iran will not admit to - and its opposition to the now defunct Middle East "peace process", which Mr Khatami says he is against but will not obstruct. Mr Khatami would far rather start with a discussion of the vast amount of money - a cool $11bn - which the US owes to the pre-revolutionary Iranian regime. And meanwhile he has to face his internal enemies, who claim that any American praise for Iran will signal a betrayal of the Islamic revolution.

He has problems enough to contend with. Earlier this year, when it seemed as if Syria wished to improve its relations with the US, Israeli press reports claimed that "secret contacts" had been made between officials from Damascus and Jerusalem. The story was untrue, but the result predictable: Syria denied the claim, condemned Israel for making it - and angered the Americans. Now the Iranians want to repair their shattered relationship with the US - and are greeted by a similar story.

According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Washington and Tehran began a "clandestine dialogue" in Europe shortly after Mr Khatami's May election. Israel, the paper said, expressed its "concern", while the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, asked AIPAC - the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, Israel's most powerful lobby group in the US - to prevent such a change in American policy. Haaretz insisted its story came from an unnamed former Clinton administration official who had helped set up the meetings. True or false?

Since Mr Khatami did not take office until August - before which President Rafsanjani remained head of state - it seems an unlikely tale. Mr Khatami may have been an innocent soul when on Sunday he expressed his respect "for the great American people" - as if they had not elected President Clinton - but he is no fool. To open secret talks with the Americans would be to give his Iranian adversaries, especially the religious guide, Ali Khamenei, enough ammunition to call for his impeachment.

No one, of course, has forgotten that Iran, Israel and the US have been deeply involved in each other's affairs since the 1979 revolution. While Washington was secretly supporting Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran, it was co-operating with Israel to buy the freedom of American hostages in Lebanon - with clandestine missile shipments and a covert visit to Iran by Robert McFarlane (along with a Bible from President Reagan, a made-in-Israel cake and a set of duelling pistols).

Mr Rafsanjani broke the story - and thus saved his presidency - before Washington could vouchsafe its own version of this ridiculous affair. Once it was revealed - by Mr Rafsanjani himself - that US diplomats had travelled to Tehran on fraudulent Irish passports (the originals appear to have been stolen from the Irish embassy in Athens) and once it became known that Mr McFarlane had subsequently tried to kill himself, the Iranian president was safe.

True, the Iranians walk the same corridors as the Americans at the UN. True, too, US officials have put the mujahedin-qalq - Iran's fiercest opponents, with bases in Iraq - on the American list of international "terrorists". But this is a long way from secret dialogue. What President Khatami wants is to de-beastialise Iran, to present his country - with all its problems and flaws and human-rights abuses - as a nation struggling to create civil peace and freedom of thought, something which Americans supposedly prize in their own society. "At the appropriate time, I'll present my words to the American people," he said in Tehran on Sunday. "I'd hope for a thoughtful dialogue with the American people and through this thoughtful dialogue we could get closer to peace and security and tranquillity." He wanted no more talking with "forked tongues".

And it is probably true that the president intends to open this "dialogue" through the medium of television, through interviews with American journalists and - perhaps - an exchange of academics between both countries.

Even before his election, officials at the ministry of Islamic guidance were circulating copies of an article by the American commentator Milton Viorst which called for a reasoned relationship with Iran.

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