Iran takes to diplomacy as its revolution settles down

DURING the sweltering Tehran August of 1984, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati proclaimed in parliament, ``The world is determined on the diplomatic stage. If we are not present, it will be determined without us.'' More than two years later, the worldwide scramble for rapprochement with the most important geostrategic property in the Gulf is in full swing.

The diplomatic frenzy just since the stunning announcement of the United States' own ``strategic initiative'' on Nov. 3 should quiet skepticism about the Islamic Republic's genuine commitment to reentering the world community.

Over the past two months, the Tehran theocracy has held high-level talks with France on normalizing relations. The deputy commerce minister led a delegation to Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Iran's parliamentary speaker almost lamented publicly: ``The British are constantly dispatching emissaries to us in an effort to raise the level of relations.''

Iranian diplomats also visited Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan, while Chinese, Indian, Polish, and Sri Lankan missions were received in Tehran. In Africa, diplomatic relations were resumed with the Congo; an economic team visited Sudan; Sierra Leone's foreign minister was welcomed in Tehran; and the Iranian commerce minister spent 14 days being feted in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

Iran and Saudi Arabia also actually agreed on a new strategy for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries which will raise prices and lower production quotas. Saudi King Fahd sent a message to Iran's President expressing the ``unanimity of views'' between the two former rivals on oil and on other issues and calling for ``greater collaboration.''

Even more interesting was diplomacy with the Soviet Union, which ranks equally alongside the US as a ``Great Satan.'' On Dec. 11, Moscow and the mullahs signed a new protocol on technological and industrial trade, ending a six-year suspension in economic cooperation. The terms include Soviet experts working in Iran. Soviet delegation leader Konstantin Katushev declared the accord ``a prelude to strengthening relations.''

Meanwhile, the US is obsessed with a domestic whodunit.

The most urgent and complicated US foreign policy issue outside relations with Moscow and disarmament now demands the Reagan administration's attention.

The White House will probably be tempted to put the Middle East on the back burner during the next two years, particularly since the three major Reagan initiatives in the region - the 1982-84 involvement in Lebanon, the 1982 Reagan plan on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the recent ``arms for hostages'' swap - have all either seriously backfired or collapsed.

But the new National Security Council staff headed by Frank Carlucci should not be intimidated by the past or diverted by agonizing future investigations into its predecessors' alleged misadventures.

On Jan. 16, the Islamic Republic will mark the anniversary of the second most important revolution in modern history, the day unarmed millions forced the Shah to abandon the peacock throne.

But eight years later, Iran is no longer simply an unruly hotbed of religious zealotry. Quickly seasoned by a grisly war, international sanctions, and diplomatic ostracization, not to mention the day-to-day running of a government, the previously inexperienced mullahs are now increasingly realistic.

In other words, the revolution is settling down. And for the US, the time is also ripe to begin a gradual and thoughtful rapprochement process - without either arms or hostages as the centerpiece.

Using its vast economic clout and technological superiority and recognizing mutual need, Washington has obvious and abundant options in trying to open a dialogue with a war-ravaged and financially troubled nation.

The more difficult part for the US will be demonstrating the patience required by a body politic with a frame of reference that is limited to four- and eight-year presidencies. For rapprochement will not reach fruition during President Reagan's final two years in office.

Still fearful of outside domination, the theocracy's foreign policy will remain cautious and feistily independent. And the passions that fueled the 1979 revolution will not burn out overnight, either in Iran or among the Islamic forces it has helped ignite elsewhere in the region.

This year's street demonstrations are likely to include, as in every previous year, crowds stomping on or burning the Stars and Stripes. Unfortunately, the rage that ignites Muslim extremism is unlikely to burn out quickly; it has its own momentum that quick diplomacy cannot fix.

Future relations are also not likely again to see Tehran a satellite or surrogate of either superpower. As Mr. Velayati cautioned shortly after talks with the US were revealed, ``Having relations with countries is different from accepting their hegemony.''

Yet at the same time he noted, ``It would be in the interest of this country if we can prevent impingements on our rights through talks and negotiations.'' The theocracy is also aware of the price of diplomatic acceptance, which was reflected in the October and November arrests of officials linked with extremism.

That was a crucial beginning. The end for the US now must be to find other ways to help channel the enormous energy behind the revolution into constructive forms - this time with constructive means.

Robin Wright, a former Middle East correspondent, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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