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Iran-US: Reversing A Thaw?

Khatami's UN visit is overshadowed by bid in Congress to endorse Iranian opposition.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 1998


Dreams of detente - or at least a thaw in relations - between the United States and Iran seem to be stalling as both sides face strong opposition at home to turning enemies into friends.

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Cautious steps have been made: Iran's moderate President Mohamad Khatami in January praised the "great American people" and asked for dialogue, and in June President Clinton responded with a call for "genuine reconciliation."

But now such moves to end nearly two decades of hostility appear under threat, as some in the US Congress and Iranian hard-liners work separately to undermine reconciliation.

"Like two young lovers, there is a mutual fascination," says a Western diplomat. "It is like a game: They want to be together, but they don't want to be seen to be together."

Iran is emerging as a strategic regional power and an efficient channel for Caspian Sea oil. But from the American perspective Iran remains suspect for allegedly backing terrorism and for posing a military threat to Israel.

In the US, a narrow congressional majority last week demanded in a statement that Iran's main opposition group, the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MKO), be taken off the State Department's list of "terrorist" organizations. The MKO, whose name translates to "People's Holy Warriors," was recognized as a terrorist group for the first time last year.

"If they manage to take the MKO off the list, it will be a major blow to the process of detente," says the diplomat. "For the Iranians it is a major topic, [listing the MKO] was the most significant American action since President Khatami was elected."

Fundamentalists hold sway

In Iran, Islamic fundamentalists who control the instruments of power consider the US the "global arrogance" that imposes "Zionist plots." They are led by conservative Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei, whose role as spiritual guide includes making final foreign policy decisions.

The reform-minded Mr. Khatami has been engaged for months in a battle against hard-liners who despise his policies of promoting a civil society, freedom of speech, and the rule of law.

Though Khatami won 70 percent of the popular vote in elections last year, the outcome of this battle is far from certain. The possibility of renewed relations with the "Great Satan" is seen by hard-liners as an attempt to topple a pillar of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

An increasing number of American foreign policy heavyweights - including former Secretary of State James Baker III, earlier this month - have called for a dialogue with Iran. But MKO lobbyists have been effective in Washington.

A statement signed by 220 members of the 435-seat House of Representatives Sept. 16 demanded a review of the MKO's terrorist status, and called Clinton's detente moves "wrong-headed." The MKO, it said, was the "legitimate opposition to the Iranian regime."

Iran Radio declared that the statement "is part of the congressmen's drive to raise campaign funds in order to win in forthcoming elections, and America's Zionist circles are generous in funding candidates...."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly called Iran the main threat to Mideast peace, and in July Iran tested the medium-range Shihab-3 missile. Iran rejects the US-sponsored Arab-Israeli peace process as unjust, and there are signs that lack of US pressure on Israel now to revive that process has scaled down expectations.