THOUGH relations between the United States and Iran have not visibly improved in the decade since the hostage crisis, both sides have taken a number of small steps forward in recent months. Some analysts say these efforts could pave the way to more normal relations when both countries are ready. ``In my view there has been a good deal of signaling back and forth between the sides,'' says Gary Sick, an Iranian specialist who served in the National Security Council under Presidents Ford and Carter. ``Despite the [negative] rhetoric and everything else, the signs are relatively promising.''
``There have been some movements and signals sent,'' agrees Shahrough Akhavi, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of South Carolina, ``but, of course, the major steps are still ahead.'' Iran's conciliatory moves
Iran's pragmatic president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, has made it clear by a number of conciliatory statements and actions that he wants to improve Iran's image abroad.
For instance, Iran recently held a Persian Gulf conference openly aimed at improving relations with its neighbors. Also, after years of United Nations criticism of its human rights record, Iran has agreed to allow a UN official in to investigate the charges. After long demanding that Iraqi troops withdraw from its territory as a precondition to any peace settlement, Iran now says it would consider a simultaneous exchange of prisoners.
``It's a good sign,'' says Andrew Hess, a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. ``If Iran is willing to come to terms with Iraq, it should be willing to come to terms with the US.''
With respect to the United States, Mr. Rafsanjani at a lengthy press conference in October condemned the taking of hostages as an ``inhuman act''; he has more than once offered help in freeing the Western hostages in Lebanon.
The US remains skeptical. ``We're not prepared at this point to say there's a trend for the better,'' says one official.
Yet outside analysts say Washington, too, has taken positive steps.
They say President Bush's tone on Iran is low key - more positive, and less reactive - than that of former President Reagan, who referred to Iranians as barbarians.
Bush specifically included the phrase ``goodwill begets goodwill,'' as a direct message to Iran, in his inaugural speech. Editorials in several Iranian newspapers have urged Tehran to follow up.
``I think Bush is doing it just about right. He's moving cautiously, quietly, even creatively,'' comments James A. Bill, director of the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary and one of the scholars who attended the recent Gulf conference in Tehran. ``These rainbows of international insults just haven't gotten us very far, '' he says.
An unconditional offer from the US in 1987 of face-to-face talks with Iran remains on the table. In November, in accord with an early ruling by the US-Iran claims tribunal in The Hague, the US recently decided to unfreeze and return to Tehran $567 million in Iranian assets. Though Rafsanjani a few days before had again offered help in freeing the Western hostages if Iran's assets were released, US officials insist the timing was coincidental. Pressed on the point, a State Department source says: ``Look, anytime anything happens with Iran, everyone here has a secret hope that somehow it's going to result in the hostages being sprung. ... I'm not suggesting that isn't the case.''
``Both sides argue the events are unrelated. That's what they have to say, but the fact is they are related,'' says Mr. Sick. In his view the next move is clearly up to Iran and must involve the hostages. He says Iran's influence on the pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon holding the hostages is predominant: ``Iran can't just push a button ... but without its cooperation and collaboration nothing is going to happen.'' Iran's internal problems
Just how much Iran wants to improve its relations with the US and how fully Rafsanjani controls his nation's foreign policy remain unclear. The new president excluded some of Iran's best-known hard-liners from his Cabinet, but their influence remains strong in both Iran and Lebanon where they once took the lead in developing and directing the pro-Iranian Hizbullah. Rafsanjani faces other pressing internal problems, including an economy drained by the recent Iran-Iraq war in which inflation is running at 70 percent.
Still, some analysts say the US can and should do more on its own to improve relations with Tehran. They point to Iran's claims that the US still holds $24 billion of the Shah's money and $12 billion that Iran paid years ago for military equipment and spare parts it has never received. Also, they point to the fact that the US still has not compensated the families of the 290 Iranians killed in 1988 when the cruiser USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down a passenger plane. The US says the money is ready once an intermediary is found to ensure that the money gets to the families.
``Whatever the excuses are, it's time for restitution,'' says William and Mary's Professor Bill. ``We made a terrible, terrible mistake there, and I think the American people would be delighted to get that taken care of.''
Some analysts also suggest that the US can play a constructive role in encouraging an Iran-Iraq peace settlement. They say Washington should urge Iraq, which started the war, to pull back to its prewar boundaries - an issue of great importance to Iran. Such a declaration by the US, analysts say, could in part compensate for the pro-Iraqi tilt practiced by an officially neutral US during the war. Keeping a low profile
Uri Ra'anan, director of the Boston University Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy, says such a move by the US would mark a ``solid step'' in the right direction and should be preceded by quiet talks with Iran that explore possible incentives. ``We have the moral high ground on this. It's something we should do,'' he says.
US officials say the peace process is in the hands of the United Nations and that such involvement would further complicate the UN job and is unlikely to promote an agreement.
Some analysts say the US would do well to keep a low profile with Iran on every front. ``There's still a lot of misunderstanding and some ill will on the Iranian side,'' observes South Carolina's Professor Akhavi. ``I feel it's best for the US essentially to go with the Europeans, especially the Germans and Italians, who have historically strong trade and diplomatic ties with Iran. I think the Europeans are really the ones to bring Iran out of isolation.''
In many ways the US appears in no hurry to forge closer ties with Iran. The public and Congress favor a go-slow approach. Officially the US insists that no improvement in US-Iran relations can occur until Iran takes action on behalf of the US hostages in Lebanon and renounces terrorism. US officials say they have seen no evidence that Iranian links with terrorism in the post-Khomeini era have waned.
``We think a more normal relationship is desirable,'' says one official, ``but we're not going to pay homage to Iran to get it.''