Does Iran Now Have Its 'Deng' to Improve US Relations?

Results of the recent election in Iran provide new prospects for reducing tensions between Washington and Tehran - an outcome benefiting citizens of both countries and increasing stability throughout the Persian Gulf.

The excitement generated by the candidacy of Mohammad Khatami in Iran's May 23 presidential race was, according to some Iranian exiles, unprecedented. When Mr. Khatami romped home with 69 percent of the 29 million votes cast, these were thought to represent especially strong support from women, youths, and relative liberals chafing in the straitjacket of the ayatollahs' rule.

Khatami, like the conservative he defeated, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, is a Muslim cleric in good standing with the theocratic Council of Guardians, which retains ultimate power in Iran. But he also has a reputation as a smart and engaging political operator. He will need those skills if he is to steer Iran into a new, more open era. For, despite the strength of his support from voters, he will still have to share power with the conservatives who dominate both the Council of Guardians and the country's parliament. (Just one week after Khatami's victory at the polls, the parliament elected Mr. Nateq-Nouri as Speaker of the House.)

Still, some analysts in Tehran have expressed the hope that, after he takes over the presidency in August, Khatami might be able to start lessening the long-simmering tensions with Washington. It is certainly in Iran's economic interest to do so: The country's all-important oil industry desperately needs new investment that is denied under current American sanctions. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Council of Guardians, gave Khatami apparent leeway for diplomatic openings when he told supporters, "We do not believe in the export of our revolution, as the Marxists of the 1950s believed."

Mr. Khamenei's statement was followed on June 5 by one from the president-elect, who said his country favors "an honorable peace" and "easing tension in relations with other countries."

It is too early to tell where such statements might lead. When President Clinton imposed trade sanctions on Iran in 1995, he cited Tehran's support for terrorism, violent opposition to Mideast peace efforts, and development of weapons of mass destruction. These policies must all be ended, he stressed again recently, if the sanctions are to be lifted.

Mr. Clinton did, however, respond to Khatami's election by expressing the hope that what he called "the estrangements" between the two peoples could be bridged. One place to start would be to communicate quietly with Iran's new president - through trusted intermediaries - to express a welcome for the sentiments he voiced on June 5, and to probe further regarding which countries Khatami was referring to, and precisely how he might propose "easing tension." Also, through such a channel, a US president might express some respect for the breadth of the popular mandate won by his Iranian counterpart.

Then, if Clinton is serious about bridging the gap with Iran, he might, as a first step, consider freeing the billions of dollars of Iranian money frozen in US banks at the time of the Islamic revolution in Iran. That money should have been released years ago under the agreement freeing US hostages in Tehran in 1981.

Trying to find a better way to deal with Iran is very much in America's interest. The policy of using tight sanctions to "contain" regional giant Iran, as well as neighboring Iraq, has left US policy in the Gulf precariously balanced on only one leg of the regional tripod of power - Saudi Arabia, the weakest of the three by most measures of national power.

NOR has the attempt to "contain" Iran brought the Arab-Israeli dispute any nearer to resolution. The tensions between Israel and its neighbors are primarily local, and Arab radicalism there is a response much more to Israel's actions than it is to outside agitation.

Will Khatami end up being Iran's Deng Xiaoping - the man with whom Washington can do business and who can bring a much-needed economic opening to his country? Only time will tell. But Washington can do much to help this happen.

And in the meantime it is worth noting that, even under the ayatollahs, Iran has a much more vivacious and open political system than China's. Tehran will see some fascinating debates and policy innovations in the months ahead. Washington should seek constructive, rather than merely punitive, engagement.

* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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