Signs of US-Iran warming?

On Nov. 3, the day the reelection of President Bush was confirmed, several thousand students demonstrated on the streets of Tehran. Not in honor of the president, who was burned in effigy, but to mark the 25th anniversary of the day the American Embassy was overrun, its staff of 52 seized and held hostage for 444 days.

Relations have not improved much since then. The only official contact between the Iranian regime and the government of the country it calls the "Great Satan" occurred in 1986, when two White House emissaries of President Reagan - Robert McFarlane and Oliver North - flew secretly to Tehran with a planeload of missiles, hoping to exchange them for Americans held hostage in Lebanon.

Now Iran looms ominously over President Bush's second term because of its nuclear program, suspected of including a nuclear weapons program. In Newsweek last week, Henry Kissinger wrote that Iran continues to declare the United States to be its principal enemy, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons would go far toward undermining international order. "Deterrence will lose its traditional meaning," Dr. Kissinger said. "It will no longer be clear who is responsible for deterring whom."

For two years the International Atomic Energy Agency has tried to find out about Iran's nuclear program, with little success. Iran has reached a tentative agreement with France, Germany, and Britain to freeze uranium enrichment activities, but that agreement is not expected to last. On Nov. 25, the board of the IAEA meets in Vienna and, depending on Iran's willingness to stick by its agreement, the issue could be reported to the UN Security Council.

If all this begins to sound a little déjà vu, you may be relieved to know that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says that, in this case, it is "inconceivable" that the US would use force. You may also be relieved to know that the first official US visit to Tehran since the McFarlane-North trips has recently taken place. Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, spent six days on what was intended as a very quiet visit to the director of the National Library of Iran.

The rapprochement between the US and China started with an exchange of ping-pong players. Maybe this one will start with an exchange of books. Never mind that one of the signs carried by the students in the anti-American demonstration was, "Death To American Culture."

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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