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Signs of US-Iran Thaw Appear

FOREIGN POLICY

By Lucia MouatStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 1989



BOSTON

THOUGH relations between the United States and Iran have not visibly improved in the decade since the hostage crisis, both sides have taken a number of small steps forward in recent months. Some analysts say these efforts could pave the way to more normal relations when both countries are ready. ``In my view there has been a good deal of signaling back and forth between the sides,'' says Gary Sick, an Iranian specialist who served in the National Security Council under Presidents Ford and Carter. ``Despite the [negative] rhetoric and everything else, the signs are relatively promising.''

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``There have been some movements and signals sent,'' agrees Shahrough Akhavi, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of South Carolina, ``but, of course, the major steps are still ahead.'' Iran's conciliatory moves

Iran's pragmatic president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, has made it clear by a number of conciliatory statements and actions that he wants to improve Iran's image abroad.

For instance, Iran recently held a Persian Gulf conference openly aimed at improving relations with its neighbors. Also, after years of United Nations criticism of its human rights record, Iran has agreed to allow a UN official in to investigate the charges. After long demanding that Iraqi troops withdraw from its territory as a precondition to any peace settlement, Iran now says it would consider a simultaneous exchange of prisoners.

``It's a good sign,'' says Andrew Hess, a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. ``If Iran is willing to come to terms with Iraq, it should be willing to come to terms with the US.''

With respect to the United States, Mr. Rafsanjani at a lengthy press conference in October condemned the taking of hostages as an ``inhuman act''; he has more than once offered help in freeing the Western hostages in Lebanon.

The US remains skeptical. ``We're not prepared at this point to say there's a trend for the better,'' says one official.

Yet outside analysts say Washington, too, has taken positive steps.

They say President Bush's tone on Iran is low key - more positive, and less reactive - than that of former President Reagan, who referred to Iranians as barbarians.

Bush specifically included the phrase ``goodwill begets goodwill,'' as a direct message to Iran, in his inaugural speech. Editorials in several Iranian newspapers have urged Tehran to follow up.

``I think Bush is doing it just about right. He's moving cautiously, quietly, even creatively,'' comments James A. Bill, director of the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary and one of the scholars who attended the recent Gulf conference in Tehran. ``These rainbows of international insults just haven't gotten us very far, '' he says.

An unconditional offer from the US in 1987 of face-to-face talks with Iran remains on the table. In November, in accord with an early ruling by the US-Iran claims tribunal in The Hague, the US recently decided to unfreeze and return to Tehran $567 million in Iranian assets. Though Rafsanjani a few days before had again offered help in freeing the Western hostages if Iran's assets were released, US officials insist the timing was coincidental. Pressed on the point, a State Department source says: ``Look, anytime anything happens with Iran, everyone here has a secret hope that somehow it's going to result in the hostages being sprung. ... I'm not suggesting that isn't the case.''