Door ajar on Iran-US dtente

Recent election results in Iran have raised hopes for improved relations in both Washington and Tehran.

On Feb. 23, a leader of the reform coalition in Iran suggested the new parliament might consider a policy of "dtente" with the US. On the same day, Clinton administration officials were quoted as looking for ways to open a dialogue.

But it is probably too soon for euphoria in either capital. A realistic assessment of future prospects cannot escape the serious obstacles that lie ahead in any effort at rapprochement. And the obstacles are especially formidable because they grow out of the domestic politics of both countries.

The long agenda of US problems with Iran reflects a deep suspicion of the Islamic leadership, especially in Congress, not yet allayed by the election results. At the top of the list is Tehran's support for terrorism, symbolized particularly by its close ties with the Hizbullah, the Shia group that targets the Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. Iran is among those declared terrorist states under US law; it was on that basis that, on Feb. 23, the same day an administrative source spoke of dialogue, the US voted to deny World Bank lending to Tehran.

Added to that is the suspicion that Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction, possibly with Russian help. This led the US Senate, on Feb. 25, to unanimously approve legislation designed to sanction Russia and any other countries suspected of helping Iran develop long-range ballistic missiles or nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.

Other issues are also likely to arise that will complicate any dialogue: the Iranian opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, espionage charges against Iranian Jews, and the US naval presence in the Persian Gulf. Outside any official discussions, lawsuits filed against Iran by US citizens, including former hostages and families of those killed by terrorists believed activated by Iran will also impede normalization.

Iranian sources have made it clear that the US must make the first move. According to The New York Times of Feb. 23, Mohammad Reza Khatami, younger brother of the prime minister and a popular leader himself, emphasized that improved relations would depend on action by Washington. Further, Iranian reformers, with their own agenda of internal liberalization, are unlikely at the beginning of their campaign to challenge the conservative leadership on contentious issues relating to the "Great Satan."

Iran's own list of grievances is long and also stands in the way of easy accommodation with Washington. It begins with sanctions. Mr. Khatami was also quoted as saying that the US "supported the totalitarian regime of the shah. And now that Iran has become one of the most free nations, it continues its policy of sanctions and continues its baseless claims against Iran."

Many of the issues have their roots in the hostage crisis of 19 years ago. The court established at that time at The Hague to arbitrate the claims of the two nations is still at work. The Tehran daily Payama Azadi published an extensive interview in January with Goodarz Eftekhar Jahromi, Iran's chief representative to the Hague tribunal. He noted unresolved claims against the US for failure to deliver items purchased by the shah's regime and for not relinquishing Iranian diplomatic property in the US (as Iran has not returned the US embassy in Tehran). He further noted the continuing dispute over the fate of the trust fund established to facilitate payment for military items for the shah and over the need for Iran to pay more into a fund established to settle civil claims.

Clearly, it is in the interest of both nations to reestablish ties. Iran has demonstrated its capacity for democracy; it occupies a central position in a key part of the world. Iran could benefit by closer economic ties with America. But, as is often the case in diplomacy, despite the desire expressed for better relations, those who would improve them are held back by domestic grievances and agendas.

* David D. Newsom is a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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