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Hostile in public, Iran seeks quiet discourse with US

A saber-rattling military parade in Tehran this week belies a number of diplomatic openings.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 2003


As a half-dozen of Iran's most advanced ballistic missiles roll by, at the climax of a military parade this week, the anti-US rhetoric appears unchanged.

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"We will crush America under our feet," the painted lettering reads, on the Shahab-3 missile - a rocket with a 1,000-mile range that the Islamic Republic vows can "hit the heart of the enemy" US-ally Israel.

But behind the scenes, analysts say that the US occupation of Iraq - and continued instability there - is prompting both Tehran and Washington to reappraise their archenemy status, and find a number of pragmatic reasons not to antagonize each other.

"The Iranians are up for [a deal], to a point. They don't want a fight," says Ali Ansari, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "On the US side, they don't want to make any more enemies in the region. If they antagonize [Iran], hard-liners could whip up real trouble."

A blossoming d├ętente is hardly possible, as questions persist about Iran's nuclear program and the presence of several Al Qaeda chiefs here. Iran is also worried about the US military presence on three borders, and that the Islamic Republic - after Afghanistan and Iraq - could be "next."

But a visit to Tehran a week ago by Jordan's King Abdullah II, followed by his trip to Washington to meet President George Bush at Camp David, may have been a key link.

"[Abdullah] received some new analysis about the region from President [Mohammad] Khatami and Foreign Minister [Kamal] Kharrazi, and transferred that analysis to the US," says Abbas Maleki, Iran's former deputy foreign minister who now runs a Caspian studies institute in Tehran.

Indeed, before visiting Bush, the Jordanian monarch told The Washington Post that he had found "common ground" between US and Iranian security interests, including a mutual fear of the threat from Al Qaeda and Sunni Muslim extremists.

The king said there is "common grounds for a dialogue," between the US and Iran, adding that a shift in policy is "a decision that [Bush is] going to make."

Though Iran remains on Bush's "axis of evil" list, strategic concerns may be causing a tactical thaw.

"We now have more border with the US [occupied countries] than Canada, and we hope this makes the US familiar with realities in the region," says Mr. Maleki. As the US military gets more deeply embroiled in postwar Iraq, anti-Iran rhetoric has tapered off, he says, "because they reached the conclusion they can't fight on different fronts."

Western diplomats and analysts in Tehran dismiss US claims from Baghdad that Iran is systematically seeking to undermine the Iraq occupation, saying that Iran also has a stake in stability there.

"Iran has no interest in creating, or being linked to, any kind of problems the Americans are facing in Iraq," says a Western diplomat. "They understand the price to be paid for doing that.

"If in some circles, [Iranians] are happy when Americans are killed in Iraq, the government and many conservatives don't share that joy," the diplomat adds. "Every setback for the Americans is bad news, because it lengthens the occupation and delays the moment when the Shiite [majority] will take control."

"They didn't raise a finger, and Saddam Hussein is gone. They didn't raise a finger, and the Americans are in trouble without them," notes another, senior Western diplomat. "The principle is not to act. I'm not saying they don't do anything [against the US in Iraq], but the role is marginal."

Secret back-channel meetings are known to have been held during the past two years. And despite the show of force on Monday - the largest parade of its kind in Iran for years, with everything on display from tanks and drones to heavy artillery - Iranian leaders sought to strike a balance.