Next move on Iran is up to U.S. Policy: The first steps in establishing closer ties between the two nations will be very small, experts say. If these succeed, then real progress could follow.

Sun Journal

January 11, 1998|By MARK MATTHEWS | MARK MATTHEWS,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Iran won't utter the magic words: "Let's talk." But its new president, Mohammad Khatami, has ignited a far-reaching debate inside his country that could eventually end two decades of hostility between the United States and Iran, according to U.S.-based Middle East specialists.

"We are beginning a careful minuet after 19 years of estrangement. Everything is put out in terms of feelers," says a U.S. official. But he adds: "We're talking about a months-and-years process, not an hours-and-days process."

The United States could respond in two ways to Khatami's call last week -- in a CNN interview -- for increased academic and cultural contact: by not discouraging American travel to Iran and by making the visa process less onerous for Iranians to visit the United States. Both steps are likely to be reviewed, officials say.

Already, one can hear an echo of the "Ping-Pong" diplomacy that opened doors to China before Richard M. Nixon's historic visit in 1972: USA Wrestling is expected to decide next week whether to send its first team to Iran since 1979.

The State Department has given a go-ahead to the group, affiliated with the U.S. Olympic Committee, to participate in a tournament next month. Its leaders met in New York last week with Iran's envoy to the United Nations, who encouraged them to come. A U.S. official says the visit is "no big deal."

In another small sign of a changing relationship, Roscoe Suddarth, president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, plans to visit three Iranian cities in the middle of next month, reaching out to private citizens and senior officials. He is a former U.S. ambassador to Jordan.

Academic visits have been exchanged to a limited extent for years. James Bill, a professor at the College of William and Mary and author of "The Eagle and the Lion," a book on U.S.-Iran relations, has traveled to Iran three times since 1988 and been welcomed warmly, he says.

Unofficial exchanges could, in turn, lead to visits by people with increasingly close ties to the governments. "Out of this kind of contact, some sort of strategy incrementally emerges," says Shireen Hunter, an expert on Iran at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

Then Washington and Tehran could get more serious. And despite U.S. disclaimers, some secret diplomacy is likely.

At least this is the view of Bruce Laingen, a retired U.S. diplomat. Laingen was one of 52 American hostages captured by Iranian militants in 1979 after the Islamic revolution that toppled the regime of Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlavi. The hostages' 444-day ordeal led to the mutual bitterness and extended acrimony that has only recently begun to ease.

"I believe in time we're going to have a secret contact somewhere with [Iranian] representatives, and the two sides will talk about how to talk," says Laingen. Such contacts are often the precursor to a more open diplomatic relationship between adversaries.

The United States has sought an official dialogue with Iran in public statements and, reportedly, through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. But Iran has refused. In the interview aired Wednesday, Khatami said Iran didn't need official ties with the United States.

Not everyone believes he means it. Indeed, the Khatami overture comes at a time when both countries are beginning to tire of their isolation from each other.

"The Iranians have to recognize that we're there and are not going away. We have a military force there and they can't shoot us out of the Persian Gulf," Laingen says.

U.S. officials say Khatami doesn't call the shots on Iranian foreign policy. Even if he wanted to open official contact with Americans, he lacks the political leverage to do so, they add. Khatami is a moderate in a nation still dominated by conservative clerics hostile to the United States.

But what he is saying signals an important change in the official Tehran mind-set that could have broad repercussions, including in Iran's relations with the West, analysts say.

To begin with, he appears to be rejecting some of the guiding ideology put forward by Iran's late supreme Islamic leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who inspired the 1979 revolution. Khomeini took the view that Western and Islamic cultures were incompatible and that all U.S. influence had to be rooted out.

Khatami, in contrast, is citing parallels between the Iranian revolution and U.S. history and suggesting that the two vastly different cultures could be compatible. And while he doesn't apologize for the 1979 hostage seizure, he speaks of it as a historical occurrence growing out of revolutionary fervor. During the Khomeini years, the hostage crisis was trumpeted as an enduring symbol of triumph.

Khatami appears to feel he is striking a responsive chord among the Iranian people.

The United States may be ready for better relations, too, Laingen believes: "The American public is prepared to put this hostage business behind them."

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