Iran: US Acts Don't Fit Words

Even as President Clinton woos China with a policy of constructive engagement, Iran - another longtime adversary - seems to be getting quite different treatment, despite new overtures.

Eventual detente between Iran and the United States might appear logical, even inevitable. But the obstacles to overcoming nearly two decades of animosity, harmful rhetoric, and ingrained spy-versus-spy fear are great.

Though many Iranians and Americans say their nations could be at a "turning point" - witness the excitement over the US-Iran World Cup soccer match June 21 and Mr. Clinton's call for "reconciliation" minutes before - deliberate steps so far point to very different styles.

The clerics who rule the Islamic Republic today are "master chess players," says one Western diplomat here.

"No diplomatic coup is possible. The US can't send a secret envoy, or expect that 'Ping Pong' diplomacy will yield quick results," he says. "You can't accuse Iran of terrorism, 'contain' Iran for years, and then say, 'You have a new president, let's talk.' That couldn't be further from the way Iran does things."

Iran's President Mohamad Khatami is expected to visit the US this fall for a UN meeting.

In January, Mr. Khatami appealed for a cultural dialogue with the US. Both sides say they want to move forward. But old memories are proving inescapable.

Americans do not forget the hostage saga that kicked off the 1979 Islamic revolution, when 52 Americans were held captive at the US Embassy for 444 days. Khatami in January expressed his regret for that event, and said that he understood the "hurt" this caused Americans.

And Iranians do not forget that the CIA engineered a coup in 1953 that returned the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi to power. The US supported him, though the increasing brutality of that regime led to the violence of the revolution.

In the first official response to Khatami's call for dialogue "among peoples," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said recently that cold-war "exigencies ... generated US policies and activities that were resented by many Iranians. In retrospect, it is possible to understand their reaction."

But Ms. Albright clarified: "We're not going to apologize" for past policies "that were appropriate to the period," she told NBC's "Meet the Press" June 21.

Those comments "were not well-received," says Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for International Affairs, Javad Zarif, in an interview.

"The change in tone [from Washington] is positive, but it was not followed by actions," Dr. Zarif says. "If it is a prelude to change, that would be significant. But the wall of mistrust can't be cracked by attempting to justify the past. What is important is to grasp the realities and to proceed."

That view is echoed by Ahmad Tavakkoli, editor of the center-right Farda newspaper. "She keeps saying Iran is a terrorist state, that Iran wants nuclear weapons, and that it is against the Mideast peace process. Of all these, only the last is correct," he adds. "So as long as America hasn't changed its intention, this discourse is not welcome here."

Such a discourse has strong opposition from right-wing clerics. They view any form of relations with the "Great Satan," as they call America, to be a sign of capitulation. Earlier this month, for example, a group of Iranian editors had planned to travel to the US. But after it emerged that they were also to interview Albright, critics charged that the trip was "politicized," and it was cancelled.

Such views are the minority, says a European envoy: "US ties are a problem for the 'Islamic Republic' [hard-line clerics], but that is quite a small community."

Still, conservatives control all the levers of power in Iran, except for the presidency. On Khatami's side, however, is the powerful mandate of 70 percent of the electorate who voted him into power last year on promises of loosening up Islamic restrictions, and breaking Iran's isolation.

That result means that "Khatami can go to a certain point," says another diplomat, "but the consensus from conservatives is: 'You can do what you want ... but just keep the US an arm's length away, we don't want them too near.' "

The final arbiter of foreign and domestic policy in Iran is the Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei, the mullah referred to as "God's deputy on earth." Congratulating the national team after victory in the US-Iran soccer game, Mr. Khamenei, paraphrased by a local newspaper, "noted that once again the arrogant enemy suffered the bitter taste of defeat."

An example of popular thinking toward Americans came in February, however, when a team of US wrestlers competed in Iran for the first time. Conservative state-run television showed the opening ceremony, then switched briefly away when the American team walked in, carrying their flag. But those in the arena erupted in a massive cheer.

The visit "forced traditionalists to confront the unpalatable truth that Iranians like the US," says a Western diplomat. One left-leaning newspaper, tongue-in-cheek, noted that "Death to America" is such a key plank of the revolution that it couldn't be changed without a popular referendum.

By contrast, when the Iranian wrestling team arrived in the US for a reciprocal match, immigration officers fingerprinted every wrestler. State Department officials apologized, but the incident highlighted the ingrained suspicion.

Some Iranian analysts say that the US delay in responding directly to Khatami's January overture was "sophisticated." One warns, though, that "emphasizing the gap between Khatami and Khamenei is the worst way to support Khatami."

But Ibrahim Yazdi, a former foreign minister and head of the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran, says that the power of an apology for the 1953 coup cannot be underestimated.

"Even if tomorrow the US opens the door to Iranian oil, the right wing will still attack it as a plot. But an apology would change the atmosphere," he says.

"We know the hostage crisis was a blow to American pride, but in the end it didn't change the foundations of American society," he says. "The coup drastically influenced the lives of Iranians for decades. For many who fought the brutality of the shah, America was a part of that ... tyranny."

"Such a step would not hurt Khatami, but help him," Mr. Yazdi says.

Khatami's rule saw one setback over the weekend of June 21, when his staunchly reformist minister of interior was impeached by parliament. The president's focus has been on domestic change, not foreign policy, so any mishandling of the tricky dialogue with the US could pose a problem.

"We are not irrational and arrogant politicians, and the US should not treat us like they are a sheriff," says Farda editor Mr. Tavakkoli. "Our revolution, religion, and national security are behind what I say, so [US ties] are always a serious subject.

"But it is according to their principles we call them the 'Great Satan,'" he says. "If America changes [its policies toward Iran], that will change too."

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