Iran: Revolution Evolution

Iran's new government includes in its Cabinet some figures perceived as liberal within the Iranian context. But will the country's new president, Mohammad Khatami, steer it toward an equally new foreign policy, perhaps even thawing relations with the United States?

The probable answer is not soon. But that should not become an excuse for putting a hold on the careful change of policy toward Iran lately under way in Washington.

The chief guidelines for Iran's government remain the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah. In the two decades since, that has meant extreme caution, often antagonism, in dealing with the US. Washington reciprocated with a largely unsuccessful "containment" policy. Its Western allies tried instead to influence Tehran with trade and some investment.

Mr. Khatami's room for maneuver derives from the popularity of his relaxation ideas with a majority of the Iranian public. After his landslide election, he appointed a minister of culture, Ataollah Mohajerani, who promises to loosen the revolution's grip on artistic expression in the country. Mr. Mohajerani once even suggested direct talks with the US - a stance he no longer openly espouses.

Nevertheless, Washington is belatedly going through its own policy shift. A recent decision not to protest a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through northern Iran to Turkey marked an easing of the US opposition to any economic relations with Tehran by Washington's Western (and Pacific) allies. With growing world interest in the gas and oil reserves of Central Asia, the decision reflects economic pragmatism. But the emergence of a popularly elected, less ideologically rigid government in Iran obviously has Washington's attention.

Supreme power in Tehran remains in the hands of the clergy, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Their opposition to the Mideast peace process, still-standing call for assassination of writer Salman Rushdie, and Iran's quest for ballistic missiles (and possibly nuclear warheads) pose very high hurdles for the West.

Note, though, that President Khatami outmaneuvered the zealots to win confirmation of his Cabinet. An evolutionary process toward normalization may be under way.

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