Washington, 9 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- America's cautious reaction to the overtures of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has made clear that the freeze between the two countries will not melt overnight but a thaw, if it happens, will be slow, drip by drip.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said Wednesday that it will take some time to assess whether patterns of Iranian behavior troubling the U.S. have really changed.
He gave a detailed response to Khatami's extensive address to the American people, aired on CNN television earlier this week, welcoming the new positive tone from Tehran but disagreeing on several points.
Rubin urged a direct government-to-government dialogue instead of Khatami's offer of cultural exchanges.
Khatami had said professors, writers, artists and tourists could help crack a wall of mistrust built up over 20 years of enmity between the United States and Iran. But Rubin said the U.S. feels direct official talks is a more effective approach.
"We should sit down and air differences, we would raise our concerns, the Iranians would raise their concerns," Rubin said.
However, in the next breath, he acknowledged that Khatami made clear Iran is not yet ready for official talks and that increased people-to-people changes could be useful in starting a warming process. "We understand the value of people-to-people exchanges and welcome the suggestion," Rubin said.
He pointed out that American tourists, professors and journalists can already travel freely to Iran. although requests for visas for cultural exchanges have been quite rare in recent years. U.S. officials will take a serious, hard look to see how to expand and formalize such exchanges, Rubin said.
Some experts recalled that the rapprochement between the U.S. and China in the early 1970's began with pingpong matches between American and Chinese teams, dubbed "pingpong diplomacy," In a process lasting two years, it led to establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1974.
In Iran's case, the game will be on a larger scale. American and Iranian teams are in the World Cup soccer finals and scheduled to face off in Lyon, France in June.
Bilateral ties may be frozen but in the United Nations, diplomats from both countries cooperate on special task forces working to stabilize Central Asia. Iran has been one of the mediators in Afghanistan, as well as Tajikistan, and has accepted and cared for millions of refugees.
U.S. policymakers have long been preoccupied with Iran's role in the region and its strategic importance given by the country's own considerable resources, and its proximity to the energy wealth of the Caspian basin.
Rubin said Wednesday that President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as he put it: "are seized with the issue of Iran and have had numerous discussions about Iran."
Much of the debate in Washington in recent weeks has focused on international pipeline projects involving Iran, which are eroding the U.S. policy of sanctions and isolation.
Earlier this week, U.S. officials said the sanctions policy is under review.
And Rubin said Wednesday that the policy is determined in part by Iran's support of terrorism and opposition to peace in the Middle East, suggesting that a change in Iran's behavior would be met with a change in U.S. policy.
He singled out as particularly noteworthy Khatami's explicit rejection of terrorism as a tool of foreign policy. But Rubin emphasized the U.S. must see actions to support the words.
Any change in the U.S. sanctions policy against Iran would have to be approved by the U.S. Congress which is currently in recess. Legislators will resume session at the end of the month with Iran expected to be a priority issue.
Senator Sam Brownback, (R-Kansas), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has a special interest in Central Asia, also urged caution.
He said Wednesday that he will not support lifting sanctions against Iran "until we see measurable improvement in the Iranian behavior which brought on those sanctions in the first place."
But Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) said he was impressed by Khatami's statement against terrorism. He said "it could be a very positive step," and that "it is time to listen if we can reach an accommodation with Iran."
Khatami's measured, even friendly statements, in place of the usual vituperation and anti-American diatribe were one of the biggest changes noted in Washington.
Rubin said the U.S. welcomes the new tone, appreciates the spirit in which Khatami made his suggestions and agrees that relations must be based on mutual respect and dignity.
He singled out as "noteworthy " and "interesting" Khatami's expression of regret for the hostage-taking incident in 1979 that caused the break in U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations. Islamic revolutionaries at the time held 52 U.S. diplomats in captivity for more than a year.
On the negative side, he said the U.S. disagrees with Khatami's interpretation of U.S. history and values, and his characterization of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. also rejects Khatami's reference to Israel as a racist, terrorist regime." Rubin said "that is not acceptable."
At the White House, spokesman Michael McCurry was the first Wednesday to give an official response to Khatami's 45-minute television appearance.
He said Khatami has made many positive remarks about the United States and Clinton appreciated them and welcomed the offer of expanded ties. However, McCurry stressed that "an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations will depend not just upon what Iran says, but what Iran does."