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Is Door Opening for Improved US-Iran Relations? - 2001-11-26

"Death to America" - the slogan sounds familiar and still finds a receptive audience at Friday prayers and on occasion, Iran's hardline clerics rally the crowds with sermons against America.

But to many Iranians the slogans ring hollow. Not far from where Friday prayers are held, a young student stands in a courtyard at Tehran University and rails against the country's hard-line elite. The student criticizes that elite for trying to rule by slogans. Instead he challenges them to stop holding Iran back, to allow change and let Iran grow and compete with the outside world.

Many Iranians, especially the young, want change. They are tired of the more than two decades of isolation that followed the Islamic revolution in 1979.

The revolution also led to a break in diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, and to U.S. economic sanctions against Iran that persist to this day. But many Iranians believe the time has come to talk.

Iran offered condolences after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and American leaders welcomed the gesture. Then earlier this month, Secretary of State Colin Powell shook hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi in New York - a seemingly minor gesture, but one that was unthinkable in the past.

Dr. Ali Reza Nouri, a surgeon and a reformist member of Iran's parliament, is one of those who think the time is right for a dialogue between Iran and the United States. "There are different groups with different ideas," he saai, "there are some people thinking about negotiations and relations with the United States, especially in this time. [But] there are some groups, radicals or rightist groups - they are against. I think if the United States does something to help this idea that we can negotiate ... for example, lifting the sanctions against Iran."

Dr. Nouri says the United States holds the key to better relations. He says if Washington were to lift economic sanctions against Iran and free Iranian assets it would lend great support to those inside Iran advocating dialogue.

Speculation about imminent dialogue was quashed last month when Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said negotiations with the United States would not be in the best interests of Iran.

Ali Rasheedi, an economist and political activist, says the dispute in Iran over dialogue with the United States is all part of the power struggle taking place in the country. "The right-wingers say if they give in," he says, "then very soon their base of power will be shattered. And, as a result, they want to stick to the old points as long as possible. But, at the same time, this is against the interests of the people, and in my view if you are a rationalist and nationalist, you will immediately (realize) that you have to move toward some kind of reconciliation with the United States."

Mr. Rasheedi also says Iran's poor relationship with the United States is hindering it from developing closer ties with European and Asian nations, as well as with groups such as the World Trade Organization.

But even the advocates of rapprochement with the United States acknowledge that it will not be easy. Each side has grievances to be addressed.

Taher Hashemi, a cleric and managing editor of the conservative newspaper Entekhab, says Iranians remain wary of U.S. intentions because of the role America has played in Iranian affairs in the past. He says Iranians remember U.S. support for the coup that brought down the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953. He says they also remember America's support for the autocratic government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was ousted by the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In addition, they accuse the United States of providing intelligence information to Iraq during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

Taher Hashemi says Iranians have come to the conclusion that the U.S. government did not want to understand Iran, but simply control it. Any future relationship, he says, must be based on mutual respect.

The United States also has grievances that it believes Iran must respect. Americans remember the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by radical Islamic students 22 years ago, and they remember that more than 50 American diplomats were held hostage for more than a year as a result of the takeover.

More recently, Washington has accused Tehran of seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction and trying to develop nuclear capability. It also accuses Tehran of supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, both of which continue to attack Israeli targets.

Mahmood Sariolghalam, a political analyst at Tehran's National University, agrees mutual grievances make normalization of relations difficult. But he says the main stumbling block toward better U.S.-Iranian relations is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. "The question of weapons of mass destruction, the nuclear issue - those are important exactly because of the American approach toward Israel," he says. "Otherwise, Pakistan is also a nuclear power and Turkey has weapons of mass destruction. Why Iran is singled [out] is because Iran is not a member of any political club. So, Iran's sovereignty is problematic for a superpower like the United States."

But Professor Sariolghalam says the United States and Iran have many mutual concerns and interests among them Afghanistan, the Caspian Sea Basin and its oil potential, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He believes the relationship between the two countries will improve over time. "It is moving in the right direction," he says. "The large Iranian-American community is a very important factor. The fact that Iran is moving from an ideological status to a status where economic growth, education, and civil society are becoming more important than foreign policy adventurism."

Professor Sariolghalam says he is optimistic that within the next five to 10 years the two nations will begin to cooperate. But he says if that is going to happen, each side must work to overcome the distorted view each has of the other.