Iran Picks Up the Pace of Reform

Thirteen years after an Islamic revolution swept Iran, the pragmatists now in power want to strengthen ties with West - but relations with the US are key

IN December last year the spouses of all foreign ambassadors in Tehran received an invitation to attend a party hosted by President Hashemi Rafsanjani's wife, Efate Maarashi.

Diplomats in the Iranian capital noted that it would be the first time since the Islamic revolution that an Iranian leader's wife would officially appear in public. In the Iranian Islamic tradition, most wives remain in their husbands' shadow.

Excitement among Tehran's diplomatic community culminated a few hours before the reception when, in separate phone calls to each guest, the presidency announced that the Islamic code of dress, which dictates that women wear long dress and cover their hair, would not apply.

"We were all standing in a large room of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs club in northern Tehran," a European ambassador's wife recalls. "Then Mrs. Rafsanjani appeared, flanked by the minister of foreign affairs' wife, Mrs. Velayati. Both women were dressed in the Western way, neither of them wore anything on their hair and they had makeup on....Of course there wasn't a single man in the room, but the simple idea of being received by those two ladies was simply inconceivable a year ago," she said.

According to foreign diplomats, Mrs. Rafsanjani's party is only one example of the changes taking place in Iran these days. And those diplomats believe President Rafsanjani wants to hasten the pace of his reforms.

"For example, we knew that he wanted to privatize state-owned companies but didn't imagine he would go so far and that fast," a European commercial attache said. "When we learned in March that he was selling most Iranian car factories' shares on the Tehran stock market we were stunned."

In the foreign policy field, Iran has resumed relations with all European and most Arab countries. The main question now is whether Rafsanjani, after his sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections last Friday, will try to improve relations with the Islamic republic's perceived archenemy, the United States.

At a press conference held the day after the elections, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati said, "Our relations with the US have not changed. The reason is that the US has not changed its policy toward us. The US is going on with its hostile policy."

However, other officials from the Islamic regime expressed somewhat different views.

"The question of our relations with the US should be dealt with without slogans," explained Said Rajaie Khorassani, a former ambassador to the United Nations, who now chairs the parliamentary Foreign Policy Committee. Mr. Khorassani is said to be one of Rafsanjani's closest advisers on foreign policy, and some Iranian journalists slate him as Mr. Velayati's successor. "Our experts should study the question of possible relations with the US," he added. "If those experts say that it is in our interest to r enew ties with the US, then we will do it."

Rafsanjani himself has over the past months refrained from making any anti-US statements, leaving the traditional anti-American diatribes to Ayatollah Khomeini's successor, Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei.

According to a senior civil servant who knows Rafsanjani well, the president would like to renew ties with the US mainly because he wants Iran to gain access to sophisticated US technology and weaponry.

"But," he added, "our president wants the US to faithfully acknowledge that there is an Islamic republic of Iran and that this regime will last for a long time."

Indeed, in a foreign policy speech a year ago in Istanbul, Rafsanjani said, "Yes, I am a pragmatist. I am interested in facts. Yes, Iran needs Western technology. But Westerners who believe Iran will sell off its Islamic principles in order to secure their assistance are wrong."

If he wants to restore ties with the US, Rafsanjani will have to overcome opposition from those within the revolutionary elite who will accuse him of betraying the ideals of the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Radical politicians who were severely defeated in the April 10 election have already announced they will not give up their struggle. Fakkreddine Hejjazi, one of their most prominent figures, said, "We should never have any relations with the United States. That was Imam Khomeini's will."

Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, another leader of the radical faction, added: "If we are not elected, the Western world should not believe that we will let the government of Iran spoil the heritage of the revolution."

The average Iranian appears more concerned about raging inflation than the debate over a resumption of ties with the US.

However, it was clear from conversations that citizens here have mixed feelings toward the US. On the one hand, they remain very familiar with American culture: Teenagers in Tehran were shocked when they heard that the famous basketball player Earvin "Magic" Johnson had contracted AIDS; most US movies are available on video cassette sold on the black market. The latest hit is "Not Without My Daughter," the movie based on Betty Mahmoody's best-selling book.

On the other hand, Iranians harbor a grudge against the US government because of what they perceive as US self-interest in only defending its own short-term goals.

"The US supported the [Shah's] imperial regime for years and then later dropped it," said one man encountered on the street. "All during the Iran-Iraq war the US government cynically backed [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein even though he bombarded our soldiers with chemical weapons. When US interests were threatened in Saudi Arabia, it reversed itself and attacked Iraq."

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