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US, Iran Play a Game of Influence, Perceptions

Two nations see each other through a glass darkly; national pride clouds their views

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 27, 1996



TEHRAN

"Sacred Defense Week" in Iran kicked off with pomp and circumstance: a parade of menacing military hardware in Tehran, matched by customary anti-West rhetoric.

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Burnished missiles, tanks, and artillery rolled past the review stand; paratroopers stormed "Freedom Square" from the air; and elite units of Iran's military forces marched past to chants of Alahhu Akbar-God is Great.

Also customary were the targets of the rhetoric: the United States and Israel, which together have been the bte noire of this Islamic regime since the 1979 revolution overthrew the US-backed leader, the Shah of Iran.

But obstacles to peace between Iran and the US are far more complex and subtle than the recent saber-rattling in Tehran and Washington suggests. Both sides, say Iranian officials and diplomatic sources, view the relationship through a distorting prism of inflated self-importance and pride.

The US policy of "dual containment" of Iran and Iraq in the volatile oil-rich Persian Gulf region is countered in Iran by similar "dual containment" thinking regarding the US and Israel.

Though these policies now appear entrenched, 17 years after the revolution, Iranians and some Western officials are beginning to pinpoint mutual misperceptions, and to look toward eventual dtente.

But President Clinton signed a bill in August that toughens American sanctions against Iran and prevents US and Western companies from investing more than $40 million in either Iran or Libya.

Iran tops the US State Department list of countries that sponsor international terrorism, and the law was billed as an "antiterrorism" measure.

"The US government is living in the past and hasn't come to the reality of the situation," said Ebrahim Yazdi, head of the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran in Tehran. "They still believe this is the time of the cold war and the shah when they could dictate to Iran what to do. The Big Brother attitude is continuing."

"Unfortunately, many Iranians also live in the past," he added. "Their memory is of US interference in Iran.... They created and trained Savak [the shah's hated internal security police], so for many Iranians the US is part of the shah's crimes."

Along with the fiery anti-American rhetoric, evidence of lingering suspicion is found throughout the capital. Still painted on the wall of the former US Embassy compound - where 52 Americans were taken hostage in 1979 - is the admonition of Iran's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution: "We will make America face a severe defeat," it reads.

And a corner shop called The Center for Publication of the US Espionage Den's Documents sells copies of the secret intelligence cables retrieved from sacks of shredded documents and painstakingly pieced together.

Still, Iranians say that due to the history of US influence in the Middle East, there is a widespread belief among Iranians that the US is omnipotent in its reach, its understanding of Iran, and its ability to change the geopolitical balance in the Middle East. Remarkably, some even believe ex-President Jimmy Carter was responsible for the Islamic revolution that deposed the shah.

"The US can make a decision to reconcile with Iran at any time," says one well-respected man at the top of his profession who asked not to be named. But the problem is convincing Iranians - after anti-US propaganda became an article of faith - that the US government is no longer the "Great Satan."

"It's nearly 18 years, and the regime says 'Down with the US' so often. How would [members of the government] justify themselves?" he asks. "People would laugh at them and ask why."

Senior US administration officials regularly mention Iran in the same breath as any recent violent incident - such as the bombing of US barracks in Saudi Arabia or the destruction of the TWA Flight 800 - but say they are especially galled by Iran's opposition to the US-brokered Arab-Israeli peace process.

"Iran underestimates how [badly] its opposition to Arab-Israeli peace plays at the State Department," says a diplomatic source.

Iran also has its own inflated sense of importance, which is fed by the media, he says. "Whenever a former CIA analyst appears on CNN and says that Iran is the No. 1 enemy, it plays here that Iran must, therefore, be No. 2 in the world."

Constant badgering from the West about Iran's alleged role in terrorism may also suit the regime's purpose, he says, by implying that Iran is powerful enough - and willing - to carry out such acts.

Iran's leaders "like to think that people believe that the regime is willing to do whatever is necessary to stay in power," he says. "They don't see the negative effect that this attitude has in the West."

One of Iran's top religious leaders, Ayatollah Nasser Makkarem Shirazi, says that a US-Iran dtente is possible "with conditions," but that the US must make the first step.

"Americans should believe that our government is very stable and they can't damage it," he says, the creases of his forehead tightening under his white turban. They should respect Islam and Iran, and stop their opposition to us."

But such a reconciliation is unlikely while both governments take pains to remind their people of crimes that have gone before and produce knee-jerk reasons for keeping distance from the enemy.

"This suspicion and mistrust is the most deep-rooted obstacle to improving our relationship, and the US does nothing to remedy that," says Mr. Yazdi, the opposition leader.

"In Iran, we are trying to improve the behavior of our own government," he says. "Americans should do the same with their government."