U.S., Iran head for chance to end diplomatic freeze Clinton, Iranian leader to be at U.N. next week, creating opening for talks

September 17, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The strained and distant U.S. relationship with Iran could change perceptibly in New York next week.

President Clinton and Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, are scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly Monday, offering each the opportunity to advance what has become an indirect dialogue conducted through official speeches.

On the same day, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is expected to attend a U.N.-sponsored meeting that may bring her into direct contact for the first time with Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi.

The meeting is on Afghanistan, now largely ruled by the Taliban, a militant Sunni Muslim group. The Taliban has been accused of killing possibly thousands of Shiite Muslims, including nine Iranian diplomats, in the takeover of Mazar-e-Sharif, the last major Shiite stronghold in northern Afghanistan, last month.

The United States and Iran belong to a U.N.-sponsored group of nations that have held a series of meetings to promote a broad-based government in Afghanistan, torn by two decades of warfare. Monday's would be the first meeting at the foreign minister level.

Iran has massed tens of thousands of troops on the Afghan border and threatened to retaliate for the killing of the diplomats. A U.S. spokesman has voiced sympathy over the killings, calling the murder of diplomats a particularly serious crime.

"We do not like to see countries such as Afghanistan and Iran in conflict in a part of the world where we have myriad national interests," White House spokesman P. J. Crowley said in an interview.

"Any kind of spark between Afghanistan and Iran could threaten regional security in South Asia, where we already see significant tension from other countries." This was a reference to India and Pakistan, two longtime enemies locked in a nuclear arms race.

The United States and Iran have been bitterly estranged ever since the 1979 hostage crisis and have had no official contact, apart from the covert ties developed in the Reagan administration's scheme to trade arms for the release of hostages held in Lebanon.

Khatami, a relative moderate elected last year over hard-line opposition, has promoted unofficial exchanges, including academic visits and sporting events, but has rebuffed efforts to start an official dialogue.

The meeting on Afghanistan offers the best opportunity to nudge the two countries closer together.

No direct, face-to-face meeting is planned between the two presidents, and at this point there isn't even a suggestion of a choreographed "chance" meeting.

Still, "I've always said the halls at the U.N. are broad enough for all kinds of contact," says Bruce Laingen, who was among U.S. diplomats held as hostages in Iran during 1979 and 1980 and who favors reconciliation between the two countries.

One possible topic of Clinton's speech is international terrorism, which the United States accuses Iran of sponsoring. He may mention Iran, an official said.

Khatami's visit to the U.N. session is the first by an Iranian head of state since 1986. However, since planning began several months ago, he has come under pressure from anti-Western hard-liners, limiting his freedom to improve ties with the United States.

"I don't think people here are expecting the earth to move on this one," said Brent Thompson, program manager of the private group, Search for Common Ground with Iran.

Pub Date: 9/17/98

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