Clinton Team Should Heed Iranian President's Signals

Rafsanjani press conference contained potential openings for Washington

ON the fifth anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani signaled key adjustments in Iran's foreign policy. Yet the major American media have missed the shifts.

The implications for the United States are considerable. The Clinton administration's most important concern with Iran has been Tehran's opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process. If that is changing, then President Clinton's foreign-policy advisers should take keen interest. Mr. Rafsanjani's extraordinary remarks on the peace process came amid a grueling three-hour televised press conference June 7. When asked by a Japanese correspondent about the Gaza-Jericho initiative, Rafsanjani said, ``We do not consider it a peace plan, for this plan tramples upon the rights of the Palestinian people.'' But beyond ``declaring our views,'' he ruled out ``practical interference, executive action, or the physical prevention of developments.'' Regarding who should lead the Palestinian government, Rafsanjani said, ``that is a matter for the Palestinian people.''

Rafsanjani also reasoned that we ``shall not sever our relations'' with Arab states that make peace with Israel, and he deferentially expressed confidence in Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's judgment about Syrian and Palestinian ``interests.'' Without setting preconditions, Rafsanjani predicted that ``the future of Iran-Syria ties will be stable.'' Perhaps most remarkably, he declared that he considers Egypt ``a great Islamic country'' and wishes to normalize ties with it.

Rafsanjani's remarks included several positive comments about ties with the US. Rafsanjani complained that the US reneged on a deal to release Iranian assets after Iran helped in the release of US hostages in Lebanon. Yet when an Iranian reporter questioned Iran's contacts and trade with the US, Rafsanjani asked, ``How would we maintain our Boeings? ... Are you saying we shouldn't sell oil to the United States? It is not right to show so much sensitivity to America.'' When the reporter retorted that he was talking about ``America as a symbol,'' Rafsanjani replied that such ``symbolism is somewhat common, of the garden variety.''

Rafsanjani's comments are unprecedented in scope, candor, and precision. That US editors and policy advisers may not know this reflects how poorly Iran has been covered in recent years.

By contrast, one Arab commentator characterized Rafsanjani's remarks as signaling a ``White Revolution in Iran's foreign policy.'' Writing in a Saudi-funded London paper, Mohammad Shukair suggested that ``the Iranian president was making it known ... that Iran was ready to embark on a disengagement operation that would involve a rethinking of its positions on the hot issues of the Middle East.... The speech was the most courageous ever given by an Iranian leader.''

Perhaps. But skepticism is warranted. The government is known for lack of consensus. The hostile reaction to Rafsanjani in sectors of Iran's press shows that the president's views are not shared by many powerful Iranian radicals and social conservatives.

But Iran's intense internal debates should not be confused with the real test of Iran's actual regional conduct. Rafsanjani must rein in Iranian ``loose cannons'' who may resist his efforts. Already, Lebanese Hizbullah sources are complaining of Iranian ``abandonment.''

Iran's critics may also discount Rafsanjani's comments as a ploy to relieve international pressure on Iran's economy. Iranians are suffering amid a slump in world oil prices, as well as from privatization, subsidy reductions, and unpaid debts from an unchecked import spree. Against US wishes, Japan and Germany have rescheduled most of Iran's short-term debts.

ECONOMICS surely is on Rafsanjani's mind, and reducing tension with the US may help reopen the international financing spigot.

Moreover, if achieved without humiliation, renewing ties to America might actually turn out to be Rafsanjani's ``ace'' against radical foes; ordinary Iranians retain a remarkable reservoir of good will toward the American people - as I've personally experienced during three recent journeys inside Iran.

Rafsanjani's remarks present President Clinton and his advisers with an opportunity and a quandary. Rafsanjani's statements suggest a lowered hurdle in Mideast peace efforts, which should be welcomed and tested. It should also remind us that the US and Iran share many concerns, including Saddam Hussein, Afghan fratricide, and a resurgent Russia in Central Asia.

Clinton needs to take Rafsanjani seriously, without backing him or bashing him. By making a more nuanced assessment of Rafsanjani's words and actions, he may be better able to discern areas of important common US-Iran interests. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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