Awaiting a Signal from Tehran. Washington sees little hope for change until Iran's split leadership overcomes its inertia. US-IRANIAN RELATIONS

IRAN is changing. The revolution is pulling in its horns. But the time is not yet right for spectacular improvements in US-Iran relations. That is the majority view among Iran specialists interviewed on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

The specialists generally agree that Iran's leaders are vigorously debating how to come to grips with the devastation wrought by the Gulf war and with the revolution's unfulfilled promises. A large part of that debate centers on how much Iran should open to the West, including the US.

But most of those questioned don't think that the pragmatists in Iran who favor an opening to the US have the political clout to do so without major concessions from Washington. Despite signs of moderation in Iran, a ranking US official says, fine-tuning US policy won't yield a breakthrough in relations. ``The logjam is on their side,'' he says.

Prof. Joseph Twinam, a Gulf specialist at The Citadel, says the US still carries ``the kiss-of-death element'' in Iran's domestic politics. This makes it especially hard for any Iranian leader to push for an opening to Washington.

Ayatollah Khomeini accepted a truce with Iraq only out of dire necessity, says James Placke, a Washington-based Gulf specialist and consultant. Since then, Khomeini has continued to balance off various factions in the leadership against each other, he says, preventing any one group from consolidating its position.

This, Mr. Placke argues, has resulted in ``a recipe for stagnation,'' leaving the major issues unresolved.

Indeed, the ranking US official argues that Khomeini ``is still holding onto the idea that the revolution is about pure Islam and revenge for what the West did to Islam and Iran.'' The cease-fire with Iraq shows Khomeini is willing to compromise with ``the forces of darkness'' to save the revolution, he says, but there is nothing to show that he is ready to accept ``the bitter pill'' of ties with the US.

``The foreign ministry has been given enough rope to establish relations with the West, aside from the US. But it doesn't yet even have the leeway to make deals with Western banks for badly needed resources,'' a well-placed US specialist says. Nor has it been able to deliver movement on British hostages since relations with London were restored.

In recent articles in Tehran newspapers, moderates have signaled that symbolic acts by the US could lead to rapid progress. They welcomed statements from President Bush that the US would appreciate help from any corner in freeing its hostages in Lebanon and his mention that Iran's influence with the captors is limited.

An Iranian deputy foreign minister suggested that if the US returned part of disputed assets and money left over from orders placed by the Shah, or quickly compensated families of those killed when the US downed an Iran Air jet over the Gulf last year, it could make a big difference.

But these signals were countered by Iran's President Hojatolislam Ali Khamenei and Parliamentary speaker Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, who reiterated that the US would have to make major moves before improved relations are possible.

Hardliner Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi was even more negative, arguing a ``wolf is still a wolf even if it wants to change its name.''

US officials say they intend to compensate the families of the Iran Air victims - when Iran responds to pending US requests for information on the families.

Washington will keep working on disputed claims over assets and intends to keep on the table its offer to begin political discussions, US officials say.

Also reportedly under consideration is an easing of export restrictions to Iran for non-military items. ``This could let them choose, if they want, to develop a commercial relationship,'' a well-informed US official says.

``We're ready to talk and stand fully behind President Bush's remarks,'' a US diplomat says. ``We're all impatient with sitting on our hands. But the Iranians have to be ready to move too.''

Prof. Shaul Bakhash of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars says there is room for gradual improvement of relations if the US can give Mr. Rafsanjani bits and pieces that allow him to sell the value of an opening to Washington. ``After a decade of seeing the US as the main devil it would be very difficult for Iran to have high-level relations with the US,'' Bakhash says. But, he adds, ``low-level and restrained'' relations should be possible relatively quickly.

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