FROM Washington, the deeply troubled state of US relations with Iran appears to have an obvious cause: the militant extremism of Iran's Islamic government.
From the handsome Fifth Avenue town house that is his official residence, Kamal Kharrazi sees it otherwise. Iran's ambassador to the United Nations says the problem is not Iran, which he says has made good faith efforts in the past, like helping with the release of American hostages in Lebanon, to ease relations with Washington.
The problem, he says, lies with successive United States administrations that have unfairly portrayed his country as a threat to American allies, a leading sponsor of terrorism, and an aspiring nuclear power.
"We don't believe the Americans are sincere in their call for a dialogue with Iran," says the Gulf nation's highest-ranking representative in the United States. "If they are sincere, they have to prove it with practical steps."
Instead of such steps, like releasing billions in Iranian assets frozen during the 1979-80 hostage crisis, Mr. Kharrazi says, the US is seeking to impose even tighter sanctions on Iran.
"How is it possible to put sanctions on a nation and ask for a dialogue at the same time?" asks the University of Houston PhD who has represented Iran at the UN for more than six years.
US relations with Iran have been antagonistic since 1979, when the often repressive and pro-US shah of Iran was overthrown. A bad situation was made worse, says the Iranian diplomat, when the US backed Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
The most recent provocation, he says, has been the Clinton administration's policy of "dual containment" that singles out Iran, as well as Iraq, as a threat to the security of Western interests (oil) and Western allies - the six nations, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The policy is backed by 12,000 US troops, which the GCC views as indispensable to its security but which Kharrazi sees as the main threat to Gulf stability.
"The main cause of insecurity is the presence of the foreign troops, because to justify their presence in the Persian Gulf they have to claim that Iran wants to aggress the southern [GCC] nations," Kharrazi says.
The solution, he says: Turn over regional security to the Gulf states themselves, which could sign nonaggression and mutual-defense pacts, perhaps backed by international guarantees. As to protecting the GCC states against Iraq, "we have the might to defend the GCC against aggression."
"If the GCC states engaged with us ... that would be a good guarantee of security," he says. "And if the US played the role of confidence-building between the GCC and Iran, I'm sure the [security] situation would be much better."
Using unusually harsh rhetoric, the Clinton administration has branded Iran an outlaw state and condemned its militant Islamic regime for funding terrorists bent on destroying the Mideast peace process.
Kharrazi acknowledges that Hamas, the radical Palestinian group accused of a series of recent deadly bombings in Israel, maintains an office in Tehran. "But this doesn't mean that we endorse whatever they do."
Washington also holds Tehran accountable for the activities of anti-Israeli Hizbullah guerrillas operating in Lebanon. Kharrazi says Hizbullah's raids into northern Israel and against Israeli soldiers operating in Israel's self-proclaimed "security zone" in southern Lebanon are justified because "Hizbullah is defending the integrity of Lebanon. This can't be branded terrorism."
As for US charges that Iran is backing terrorism, he says, the burden of proof lies with the US. "It is not enough just to make an allegation. If the US, with all its intelligence capabilities, could show us any evidence of Iran being involved in terrorism, we'll accept that."
He claims that the US allows another terrorist group, the Irish Republican Army, to raise funds on US soil.
Kharrazi also refutes press reports alleging that soldiers from Iran's Revolutionary Guard have been training Bosnian soldiers. "There have been some advisers in Bosnia to help with reconstruction and other nonmilitary affairs, but there have been no Iranian soldiers," he says.
Unconvinced, the US Senate voted last week to withhold $200 million in civilian aid to the Bosnian government until Iranian personnel leave the country.
The Clinton administration, meanwhile, has refused to release $100 million to help arm and train Muslim and Croat forces in Bosnia until the Iranians are gone.
The Bosnian peace accords signed last year in Dayton, Ohio, required the departure of all foreign forces from Bosnia by Jan. 19.
The American effort to isolate Iran has been partly neutralized by Europe's policy of maintaining trade and political relations with Iran. It has also run afoul of Russia's plans to help Iran build two nuclear reactors, which the US sees as furthering Iran's ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons.
"Each country has the right to diversify," says Kharrazi, when asked why a nation so well-endowed with oil and natural gas needs nuclear energy. "Without nuclear power, our oil will be ended within 10 to 15 years."