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Iran: Officials To Look For Clues In Khatami TV Interview

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 7 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Some key Washington policymakers will be sitting at home watching television tonight -- but not for entertainment.

CNN (Cable News Network) is scheduled to air an exclusive interview with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami late Wednesday that could mark the beginning of a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, frozen for nearly 20 years.

State Department spokesman James Rubin said earlier this week that the U.S. will be watching and listening to statements from Tehran "very, very carefully." He said the U.S, will continue to make judgments based on the actions of the government there and on considerations of security and risk.

But he said the environment in Iran is new, "so we will be waiting and hoping for further encouraging statements."

In an unusual move last month, Khatami called for a dialogue with the American people. He has said the interview on CNN will be like a New Year's address to Americans.

Khatami carefully displayed interest only in the American people -- not their leaders, and Washington has responded similarly -- with warmth on people-to-people ties, but great wariness on the possibility of an official dialogue.

President Bill Clinton last month clearly articulated the conditions under which the U.S. might hold direct talks with Iran and Rubin repeated them again Tuesday.

Rubin said first the U.S. would have to be sure the dialogue is properly authorized and openly acknowledged by the Iranian government.

He refused to speculate about the possibility of two political camps in Iran but U.S. officials acknowledge that rhetoric from Tehran's Islamic government in recent days is sending mixed signals, suggesting a power struggle is going on between moderate clerics represented by Khatami and anti-American hardliners.

Iran's supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has continued to criticize the U.S. and Friday ruled out the possibility of an official dialogue. Khamenei ranks above President Khatami and is thought to have the final say on foreign policy.

There are also important matters of substance that neither side seems willing to compromise.

For the U.S., as Rubin noted, dialogue topics would have to include major concerns about Iran's support for terrorism, opposition to the Middle East peace process and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Recently, there have been fresh reports about Tehran's ballistic missile program and charges that Russia is helping develop it.

The State Department is sending special envoy Frank Wisner to Moscow later this month for what it says will be important negotiations on the issue.

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon said Tuesday that in the U.S. view " the acquisition or development of longer-range missiles would pose a potential threat to the region.

He said Iran already has the so-called Scud C missile with a range of 500 kilometers. that could easily hit Russia, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and even Georgia.

Bacon said Iranians are now trying to buy or develop longer-range missiles that can reach targets more than 1,500 kilometers away. He said the U.S. is "engaged in very vigorous diplomacy with Russia, and North Korea and other countries to try to limit missile exports or sales, or components of missiles to Iran."

On the Iranian side, leaders have said an improvement in relations with the U.S. cannot take place until Washington releases hundreds of millions of dollars of Iran's assets, blocked since the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the pro-Western Shah Reza Pahlavi.

The U.S. froze the assets after Islamic militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats hostage until January 1981.

Washington has also imposed economic sanctions against Tehran and tried to discourage major international deals involving Iran, particularly various pipeline projects

Iranian leaders claim the U.S. wants to destroy their Islamic government and say American hostility must cease before a dialogue can begin.

None of these issues are likely to be advanced much in Khatemi's television address tonight.

U.S. officials say they do not expect dramatic developments, simply clearer signs of Iran's intentions.