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Iranian Reformers Complain About US Threats - 2002-02-18


Iranian reformers are still reeling from U.S. President George Bush's description of Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as an axis of evil. Reformers complain U.S. threats have weakened their voice and undermined their efforts.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Javad Zarif summed up his country's reaction in an American TV interview last week. "I think the rhetoric used by the U.S. president to describe Iran was an insult to the Iranian people," he said.

In his speech to U.S. lawmakers last month, President Bush warned Iran against pursuing a nuclear weapons program and continuing support for international terrorism.

Mr. Bush directed his words at what he called the "unelected few" who repress the Iranian people's hopes for freedom.

But analysts like Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy say Mr. Bush's words instead may have undermined the very reformers Washington wants to encourage. "The difficulty the United States faces in trying to encourage democratic reform in Iran is that many Iranians are proud nationalists," said Mr. Clawson. "And while they may despise the unelected leadership of their government that throw in jail many reformers, these same Iranians don't like the U.S. interference and are hyper-sensitive about the perception that the United States has in the past determined the direction of Iranian policy before the revolution."

That show of nationalism was evident in Tehran last week when tens of thousands of demonstrators shouted "death to America." The rally was held to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled an American ally, Shah Reza Pahlevi.

Even reformist President Mohammad Khatami lashed out at Washington, in sharp contrast with his words of sympathy after the September terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Since his 1997 election, President Khatami has encouraged efforts to repair Iran's international image and improve its relations with the United States.

Washington cut all diplomatic and economic ties more than two decades ago after Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held the diplomats there hostage.

Analyst Patrick Clawson says efforts to renew a dialogue are complicated because military, security and foreign policies are still controlled by Iran's more conservative Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. "And there's a vigorous debate in Tehran about whether to talk to the U.S. and those opposed to talking with the United States have the upper hand," he said. "And that is not likely to change any time soon, no matter what the United States does."

Reformers in Iran had been heartened by recent signals that bilateral tensions were easing. After the September terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Iran had condemned terrorism and offered help for any downed pilots in the U.S. military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan.

But President Bush's warnings to Iran followed reports of Iranian support for groups working against Afghanistan's interim government. It also followed Israel's seizure of a shipload of Iranian weapons allegedly bound for the Palestinians.

Last week, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told a group of foreign policy experts that Iran appears to be committed to destroying peace efforts aimed at resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He also complained about Iran's continuing support of terrorism and efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

For their part, Iranian reformers blame rogue elements within the government and complain that Washington's bias toward Israel colors its attitudes toward Iran.

Political analyst James Walsh of Harvard University says part of the problem is the unresolved battle for power within Iran's political structure. "Again, because Iran is a fractured government with decentralized power, different groups have the ability to pursue their own independent policies," said Mr. Walsh. "And when hard-liners go out and pursue a policy we don't like and we respond by criticizing President Khatami and the entire Iranian government, then we're not doing ourselves a favor and we're not increasing the chance that we're going to reduce these problems in the future."

Some diplomats say the tough U.S. position signals frustration with Mr. Khatami's inability to speak for the whole government and a growing impatience with his slow pace of reform. Embattled reformers in Iran seeking a thaw in relations say Washington's new hostility will slow their efforts even more.

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