How serious is Iran about renewing ties with the United States, after more than 20 years of estrangement and revolutionary anti-American rhetoric?
More serious than most in the West may have thought.
Besides the resounding victory by reformists in last week's parliamentary elections, The Supreme Council for National Security - Iran's top security body - voted unanimously in secret six weeks ago to re-establish ties with the US, according to an Iranian source who knows two people who attended the meeting.
That momentous decision was apparently vetoed by Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran's "supreme leader," who has the final say in all issues. But it tells much about how Iran is working quietly at high levels to end its self-imposed isolation.
"We hope with the international reaction to the large turnout in the election [an astounding 83 percent], we will see a major change in Iran's relations with the regional nations and the entire world," said Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's foreign minister. "No doubt any positive action taken by other countries would receive [a] positive response."
And the hopeful words of Iran's fresh-faced new lawmakers are being matched by renewed signals from Washington that it, too, is ready to engage Tehran.
"It's clear that there has been an unmistakable demonstration of support for the policies of openness and engagement," US State Department spokesman James Rubin said Wednesday. "It is our hope that the popular mandate enjoyed by the new parliament will set Iran on a new course towards a new constructive role in the region."
Indeed, analysts say that Iran could again become a source of stability in an otherwise volatile region. "The groundwork has been done, and the absolute majority of Iranians are interested in joining the rest of the world. They've said enough is enough," says Shahriar Rouhani, a Yale-educated physicist at Tehran's Azad University who played an important role in the first years of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
Those who would veto renewing Iran's overtures to the outside, he says, "are individuals who are fed and live on an environment of antagonism."
The US broke off ties with Iran when a group of Iranians in 1979 overran the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Since then, hatred for America - the "Great Satan" - has been a pillar of the revolution. But Iran is undergoing profound changes sparked by the upset victory of reform-minded President Mohamad Khatami in 1997.
Mr. Khatami first hailed the "great American people" and called for dialogue in January 1998, but his efforts have until now been stalled by conservatives. Washington, nevertheless, responded slowly, and continued to accuse Iran of sponsoring terrorism, rejecting the Mideast peace process, and pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
"The perception is the US is pressing Iran with sanctions," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University. "The US should relax a bit and give enough ammunition to the reformists, so that they can argue for change."
Other policies also complicate engagement, in the Iranian view. They include $20 million earmarked each year by Congress to undermine the government of Iran; continuing congressional support for the armed opposition, Mujahideen e-Khalq, which was put on the list of terror groups in 1998; and Radio Free Europe, which beams a Farsi service from Prague.
"The US is a prisoner of their rogue state policy," says a European diplomat in Tehran. "When you say for 20 years that this country is the soul of terrorism, it's difficult to change - just as it is for Iranians to change after all their rhetoric. "We don't say Iran is a pure, innocent country singing in the international chorus of angels," he adds. "But are we sure it is the worst?"
An important test will be the outcome of ties to the World Bank, which will soon consider lending anew to Iran. Loans to cash-strapped Iran were halted in 1993 under US pressure.
One key to US policy has been the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington, analysts say. In search of a new, post-cold-war justification for the billions of dollars in US aid given each year to the Jewish state, Israeli leaders and advocates in the early 1990s - according to reports published at the time - devised a strategy of vilifying Iran as an increasing Islamist security threat.
Iran's continued tough anti-Israel rhetoric has done little to adjust that view. "Israel is briefing crazily to anybody they can get their hands on that Iran wants to destroy Israel," says a senior Western diplomat.
In that respect, some American and Israeli concerns may ease if there is progress on Arab-Israeli peace talks. Iran rejects the peace process, but says it won't actively undermine it.
"A genuine [US-Iran] rapprochement will come with the Arab-Israeli wind, from West to East," says Mr. Rouhani. "Americans were the most popular people in Iran 25 to 30 years ago. Our closeness with America brought us prosperity."
And, mirroring the ping-pong diplomacy that led to US dtente with China in the 1970s, soccer and wrestling team exchanges between the US and Iran have helped break down barriers.
The highly politicized World Cup match between the two nations in 1998 - in which Iran won, 2-1 - was a model of sensitivity on the playing field. Both teams won fair-play awards.
Still, people-to-people contacts have not all been rosy. A half dozen Iranian clerics traveling to the US for a seminar on "Islam and secularism" last December were stopped by immigration officials in New York, finger-printed, and photographed - a rule for Iranian passport holders.
In a nation that often prides style over substance, Iranians were disgusted at what they saw as a high-profile humiliation. "We felt like criminals on the FBI's 'Most Wanted' list," recalls Hojjatoleslam Sadegh Larijani, one of the clerics, interviewed in Iran's holy city of Qom.
Lessons appear to have been learned in Washington after that incident, however. Iran's national soccer team visited the US last month, was not fingerprinted, and played to a rousing welcome at a re-match with the American national team. The result was a politically correct tie, at 1-1.
"I have no problems debating and thinking, and have books in my library from East and West," Mr. Larijani says. "I have no problem with a 'dialogue of civilizations.' But we are not going to give up our Islamic dignity."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society