War, surprisingly, opens diplomatic doors

Campaign carries opportunities as well as risks for longtime US foes, especially Iran.

As the United States looks for openings to improve relations with countries in the crucial Middle East region, it might take note of what's going on outside the closed-up US Embassy in Tehran.

Yes, there are still anti-American rallies outside the gates that were stormed in November 1979 by Iranians as part of the country's Islamic revolution. This week, assembled protesters again chanted "Death to America" to mark 22 years of the Embassy's - and a pro-US regime's - fall.

But the crowds aren't what they once were. And as a sign of an attitude blooming among many Iranians, flowers have appeared outside those same embassy gates on many mornings since Sept. 11 - a symbol, though quickly removed by police, of a warming toward America.

Those flowers are just one facet of an emerging picture of opportunity for the US in several corners of the Middle East and Persian Gulf region. While attention is focused on the damage the military campaign in Afghanistan could do to US relations with the Muslim world, examples of another kind suggest important openings to US efforts in the region in the months ahead.

From a recent pro-Western cabinet shuffling in Jordan, to White House meetings this week between President Bush and Algerian and Moroccan leaders, and even secret talks between American and Libyan officials, the US is using the post-Sept. 11 climate to press its interests.

In the case of Libya, the talks may be limited to what information a regime that has used terrorism against American interests can provide on current terrorist threats. Algeria's information may prove useful, too, since the north African country has battled Islamic extremists for a decade in a war that has cost more than 100,000 lives. The US may also see an opportunity to press its interest in Algeria's vast natural-gas reserves.

The door opens wider

But signs of a good chance to mend relations with Iran, one of the region's key powers, top the list. "Iran is not one more little country you can sharply improve relations with overnight," says William Quandt, a former National Security Council Middle East specialist under the Carter administration, and now a professor at the University of Virginia. "But improvements are something elements on both sides have sought for a while, and the current climate opens the door to them a little wider."

Indeed, moderate President Mohamad Khatami has made overtures to the West, including the US, since he took office in 1997 in a landslide election. But his efforts have run into stiff resistance from hard-line clerics in the government, who see any opening to the US as a slap at the revolution. Still, in response to Mr. Khatami, the US under President Clinton did relax some economic sanctions against Iran - including easing up on the import of Persian carpets.

Now, the US is carrying on talks with Iran and Syria, as noted by Secretary of State Colin Powell last week in remarks to the National Association of Manufacturers. "I think some new opportunities may be presenting themselves," he said.

Some opportunities are already becoming evident. For one, Iran recently decided to pull a large number of military officials out of Lebanon, Sudan, and Bosnia. Those in Lebanon had been working for years with Hizbullah, according to intelligence sources, and that move may resonate with the US, which considers Hizbullah a terrorist organization - although Iran still backs Hizbullah financially.

Another development, Iran's offer to rescue any US pilots downed in its territory, is "quite extraordinary," says Stephen Cohen, a Central Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Still, such assistance is considerably less than other neighboring countries have offered. And Mr. Cohen says the US should move cautiously, with the idea of advancing Iran's moderate forces while containing the country's destabilizing impact in the region.

Iran's moves may be partially motivated by its interest in developing the country's potential as an oil and gas power. Iranian leaders have been encouraged by new signals from the US, which until recently supported financially the anti-Iranian Taliban. Iran vehemently opposes the Taliban, whose Sunni form of Islam is opposed to Iran's Shia branch of the religion. Iranians also detest Osama bin Laden as a dangerous carpetbagger in the region.

At the very least, the US could benefit from public signs of better relations with Iran at a time when it's dropping bombs on another Islamic country. Outside Afghanistan, "Iran has the only Islamic regime in the region, so it would help to defuse a bit the claims that the US is really carrying out a religious or civilizational conflict," Mr. Quandt says.

Strikes in Iraq?

Responding to some suggestions that the US curry favor with Iran in preparation for possible future strikes against Iraq in the war on terrorism, Mr. Cohen says, "it would be vastly premature to contemplate giving up our dual-containment policy" affecting both Iran and Iraq.

Despite Iran's enmity toward Saddam Hussein, its leaders have little reason to favor a tougher US stance with Iraq. "Iran would probably be delighted if a silver bullet were finally discovered [to prove a link to Mr. bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization] to rid the neighborhood of Saddam Hussein," says Quandt, "but then there's the prospect of US troops pummeling another nearby regime for six months. I don't think Iran wants to see US power demonstrated in such close proximity in that manner."

Still, as the US takes a big-picture look at the Middle East region, experts say it's only being smart to pursue improved relations with a large country such as Iran - especially as that might offset what are looking like more problematic relations with two other "big" players in the region: Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

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