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Iran: Relations With U.S. Unlikely To Improve Soon

  • Charles Recknagel



The victory for reformers in Iran's parliamentary elections last month holds out hope for a thaw in Iranian-U.S. relations. But as regional expert Kenneth Katzman of the U.S. Congressional Research Service tells RFE/RL, no changes are likely to come before the United States' presidential election in November. Correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 2 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the wake of Iran's legislative elections last month, both the victorious reformist camp and U.S. policy-makers have signaled that they could consider a policy of detente. But so far, both sides have said they want to see the other make the first steps -- suggesting any thaw will still be a long time coming.

Kenneth Katzman is a regional expert at the U.S. Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C. RFE/RL asked him to assess the impact of the reformists' parliamentary victory on U.S.-Iranian relations

Katzman says he does not expect any initiatives toward detente from the Iranian side in the short term because the first priority for the reformists is the domestic, not the foreign policy, arena. Katzman:

"I think we are in a very constrained situation where the reformists who won large numbers of seats in the new parliament first of all are going to be looking for ways not to precipitate a backlash among the hard-liners. ... They are going to stick to ... domestic reforms, legal reforms, getting rule of law instituted, free press ... non-arrest of editors and journalists, etc. But more broadly than that, I think they don't want to force a contentious issue like relations with the United States right now."

Katzman also says that reformers may choose not to begin any dialogue with the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton, preferring to wait instead until after the presidential election in November. He says this is because many in the Iranian leadership see the Clinton administration as having pursued an aggressively hostile policy toward Tehran during the past eight years and would object to conducting a dialogue with it. Katzman says:

"I think the Iranian leadership may be waiting for the next [U.S.] administration to come in before they take any dramatic steps toward the United States. To some extent, some in the Iranian leadership may feel that President Clinton was the one who imposed the trade ban on Iran, was the one who signed the Iran-Libya sanctions act, Radio Free Iran was instituted under his administration, although that wasn't his idea but still it was ginned up while he was in office. ... [Also,] the Patterns of Global Terrorism Report every year during the Clinton Administration has been very, very hard on Iran, calling it the world's most dangerous sponsor of terrorism [although that language was dropped last year]. I think the Iranian leadership probably feels there is too much baggage from the Clinton administration and would prefer to wait for another 10 or 11 months for the next crew to come in [in January 2001]."

Katzman also says that the reformers' victories in the parliamentary election now gives the government of President Mohammad Khatami the power to undertake some openings toward the U.S. that it could not contemplate before. That's because the elections saw the conservatives lose their majority in parliament and, with it, the power to impeach cabinet ministers whose moderate policies they opposed.

"[The parliamentary election results] certainly would encourage the foreign minister to take some bolder steps, maybe allowing U.S. government officials to make visits to Iran, etc., because now [with] this new majlis [that is, parliament,] he does not fear impeachment anymore."

Turning to Washington, Katzman says that the Clinton administration is likely to view the reformist victory at the polls as a sign that it still may be able to engage Iran in a dialogue before it leaves office. He says the administration views starting an engagement with Iran much as it does achieving Arab-Israeli peace -- as something it wants to include in its legacy of foreign policy achievements.

"I think it is very much like the Arab-Israeli peace process, it's something that the Clinton administration still holds out hope that it can finish before it leaves office. One would have been an Israeli-Syrian treaty, I think they still hold out some hope for that, an Israeli-Palestinian final treaty, I think they still hold out hope for that, and the beginning of U.S.-Iranian dialogue, and I still think they hold out hope for that, too. These are three things in the Middle East that I think they would like to get accomplished before Clinton leaves office."

The analyst also says that the Clinton administration, including Vice President Al Gore -- who is now running for president -- does not regard the upcoming presidential election as any reason to put its objectives for Iran on hold.

"The U.S. election may cause some in the Gore camp to urge a go-slow approach but ... I think Vice President Gore has figured out a way to explain a U.S.-Iran dialogue, if it indeed happens, on the campaign trail. ... And really the polls don't show extraordinary animosity among the American public anymore toward Iran, so I don't think just a dialogue in itself would be a tremendous campaign liability for Mr. Gore."

Katzman says that the reformists' recent parliamentary victory well may encourage Washington now to make a gesture toward engagement in the months ahead, perhaps a move to modify bans on trade. But he believes that -- in the short run -- Iran is likely to respond to such overtures only by demanding more U.S. concessions without taking any reciprocal steps. For that, the United States may have to wait until it can match Iran's election with one of its own, if only to provide both sides with the appearance of a new beginning from which to proceed further.

The U.S. broke relations with Iran after militants took U.S. embassy staff hostage in 1979 to protest Washington's allowing the deposed shah into the United States for medical treatment. Since Khatami's election some three years ago, there have been signs both sides may be ready to talk. Khatami has called for greater cultural exchanges, and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has urged developing a road map to better relations. But the overtures were later derailed by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called Albright's offer a political gimmick.

The two sides also remain at odds over what to discuss should any talks begin. Washington has called for Iran to come to the table to discuss all differences, ranging from U.S. charges Tehran supports terrorism abroad to Iranian demands for lifting of U.S.-imposed sanctions. Tehran has said any talks must be conditional on a lifting of all U.S. sanctions imposed since 1979.

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