Long Enemies, Iran and US Now Whisper of Ways to Reconcile

WILL OIL BRING THEM TOGETHER?

Few passersby spare a glance these days at the razor wire and guard posts that line the sidewalk on Mofatteh Avenue in downtown Tehran. Yet in 1979, behind these same graffiti-covered walls, militant Islamic students held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days.

Eighteen years later, the former US Embassy in Tehran, dubbed the "US Espionage Den" by the Iranian government and now used as a training academy for Revolutionary Guard cadets, remains the most potent symbol of the dangerously poor relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Yet despite the fierce antagonism that has divided the two countries for nearly two decades, officials in both capitals have hinted at a possibility of a new opening. "There has been plenty of discussion about President Clinton having a more open hand in his second term," says Mohammad Javad Larijani, deputy chairman of the Iranian parliament's foreign relations committee. "Certainly, if any government wants to review its policy, it should start where it has the most failure."

Over the past few months, rhetoric against the US has become less strident, diplomats say. Iranian officials have made nuanced statements in favor of negotiations with Washington.

"We are not shy of talking to anyone, so long it is in our national interest," continues Mr. Larijani, who is also a member of Iran's National Security Council. "But why should Iran change its policy when there is no serious signal from Washington? It is the US that is hostile to us."

In private, some Iranian officials hold even more radical views. "We should solve the problem of Israel," says one official at the ministry of Islamic guidance. "We should recognize the peace process. We don't have to agree with it. We can say we don't like certain parts of it, but solving the Israel question would also solve the hostility of the media ... and the US."

Iran's most senior leaders, whose political survival depends on finding a compromise between pragmatists and hard-liners within the regime, cannot espouse such thinking in public. But even President Hashemi Rafsanjani's public stance toward the Middle East peace process has softened since the Palestinian Authority entered direct negotiations with Israel.

"The problem with Iran is that the government is not a monolith," says a senior Western diplomat here. Multiple power centers compete for influence over policy, government ministries disagree with each other, and hard-line groups have the power to stymie moderate government policies.

"There is no omnipotence in foreign policy formation in Iran," says Larijani. As a result, say diplomats, no single figure, except Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the authority to negotiate with Washington. "The Americans say they are happy to talk [with Iran] if they can find someone to talk with," says the Western diplomat. "But the ruling hierarchy here could not take any public action until they were assured of a [successful] deal. The extremists would prevent them."

Iranian political analysts say that while the demonization of the US provides a useful scapegoat, the end of hostilities would allow Iran to attract more foreign investment to develop its oil fields and create jobs for its millions of unemployed. (See story, Page 6.)

Even Iranian officials point to issues where US and Iranian policy coincide. "There are issues of convergence between Iran and the US, such as the security of the Persian Gulf," says Larijani. "Neither Iran nor the US has any interest in destabilizing the security of this region," the world's oil spigot.

Yet both governments are plagued by an acrimonious history dating from the fiery first days of the 1979 revolution. American memories of the hostage crisis burn brightly, while more recent issues include the assassination of Iranian dissidents abroad.

Iran's burgeoning nuclear-power program, and its opposition to the Middle East peace process, have dimmed American desire for resumed relations.

But Iranian officials and ordinary citizens paint a different picture. When Iran looks at the US, it sees a country that has been openly hostile since 1979, aiding Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, shooting down an unarmed Iranian airliner in 1988, and imposing full economic sanctions on Iranian products in 1995.

To some extent, the two governments' mutual antagonism rests on the individual personalities involved. Rumors flew around Tehran that the recent retirement of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who also served President Carter during the hostage drama, would break the deadlock.

Few analysts expect dtente between Tehran and Washington in the near future: Institutional hostility is deeply ingrained in both governments. But with the US Fifth Fleet patrolling the Persian Gulf and Iran strategically located to disrupt Gulf shipping and much of the world's supply of oil, the consequences of an escalation of hostilities could be grave.

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