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Iran: Washington, Tehran Hold Rare Talks on Sidelines Of Davos

In a rare high-level meeting between Iran and the United States, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and U.S. Senator Joseph Biden held 90-minute talks on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Analysts say the meeting marks an important first step toward improved ties between the two nations.

Prague, 27 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and U.S. Senator Joseph Biden did not comment on the nature of their talks on 23 January on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

But Iran's Foreign Ministry has since said the meeting was not planned, and said the U.S. senator himself approached the Iranian delegation to propose a meeting with Foreign Minister Kharrazi.

Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic relations since the 1979 Iranian revolution and the U.S. hostage crisis. Tensions further increased in 2002, when U.S. President George W. Bush labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" intent on attaining weapons of mass destruction.

"I think this is the first step in breaking the ice; it's possible that this step will lead to other steps, [other meetings] at the level of U.S. congressmen and senators."
Although diplomats from both sides have reportedly held secret talks on Afghanistan and Iraq in the past, last week's private meeting between Biden and Kharrazi took place on the sidelines of the heavily publicized World Economic Forum. Observers say the talks signal a step toward improved ties between the United States and Iran.

Hooshang Amirahmadi heads the American-Iranian Council, an advocacy group based in Princeton, New Jersey. He says the fact the meeting took place in a relatively public setting is important in and of itself, and shows Iran's leadership is changing its attitude regarding dialogue with the United States. "I think both the Iranian and the U.S. government are slowly showing signs of readiness for meeting in public, and the meaning of this is that both sides are getting ready to enter a sort of dialogue," he said. "The other meaning is that the Iranian side is showing more signs of readiness for normalization of issues with the U.S. -- in fact, it means that the Iranian leadership has come to the conclusion that meeting, holding talks and discussions with the U.S. in public is not a problem. This a very important point."

Amirahmadi added that the Davos meeting between Kharrazi and Biden -- an influential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- could lead to more such meetings between lawmakers from the two countries. "I'm sure that [during last week's discussion] there were also talks about a possible meeting in the near future between a group of Iranian [parliamentarians] and representatives from the U.S. Congress. This is a step Mr. Biden has been pursuing for a long time."

But the United States has continued to voice concern about Iran's nuclear program, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- who has the last word in all matters related to the Islamic Republic -- has always strongly rejected any negotiations with the United States.

Iran's former ambassador to the United Nations, Said Rajayi Khorassani, says he believes that this time, Khamenei gave his consent to the Kharrazi-Biden meeting. "I suspect that Kamal Kharrazi would not have met with a U.S. senator without informing President [Mohammad Khatami] and other top officials," he said "I'm certain that the supreme leader knew about the meeting and had also agreed with it."

Gary Sick is a professor of Middle East politics at New York's Columbia University and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the 1979 revolution and hostage crisis. He says the high-level meeting is a hopeful new step on a long road to rapprochement. He notes, however, that Biden was not officially representing the U.S. government -- meaning the talks, while important, stop short of signaling a major diplomatic breakthrough. "Of course this is not the executive branch [conducting the talks]. So I do not see this necessarily as a breakthrough in terms of direct U.S.-Iran discussions or negotiations -- that would be with the executive branch, not with the Congress," he said. "But I do think that this is an important step, I think it signals a willingness on both sides to conduct such talks. But it really is very much up to the president and the members of the State Department and the executive branch to decide whether they are prepared to undertake such meetings and I think that has not been resolved yet."

Following last month's massive earthquake in Bam -- which prompted the United States to send humanitarian aid and temporarily lift sanctions -- some analysts speculated that so-called "earthquake diplomacy" might help ease tensions between the two countries. But top officials from both sides have drawn a clear distinction between humanitarian issues and politics, and have set a number of preconditions for any future talks.

Rajayi Khorasani, the former UN ambassador, says the talks between Kharrazi and Biden could ultimately lead to the resumption of political negotiations between the two countries. "I think this is the first step in breaking the ice; it's possible that this step will lead to other steps, [other meetings] at the level of U.S. congressmen and senators," he said. "No [U.S.] government official has entered the scene yet. But further contacts, which I believe could take a few months, could open new horizons for other talks and meetings that finally could lead to political negotiations. Not in the preliminary stages, though."

Gary Sick of Columbia University says a resumption of ties between the two countries anytime soon is unlikely. "I do not see a very strong likelihood that full reconciliation and resumption of diplomatic relations is really in the cards at the moment," he said. "I think it's going to happen and I think it could happen rather quickly if people on both sides were willing to demonstrate some goodwill. But you have to remember, first of all, it is an election year in the United States, and people generally don't win votes by being nice to Iran. And secondly, it is a double election year for the next 18 months or so in Iran, and again you don't win very many points in Iranian politics by opening up to the United States."

Sick says that as the United States seeks to expand its presence in the Middle East, normalized ties with Iran will become more and more necessary. "I do think there is a process under way. There is no question in my mind -- or, really, very many people's minds -- that the United States, because of its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, actually needs to develop a neighborly relationship of some sort with Iran. And I think that's going to happen but I don't see it happening, say, in the next few months," Sick said.

Government officials in the United States and Iran have yet to comment publicly on last week's meeting.

(Alireza Taheri, a senior correspondent with Radio Farda, contributed to this report.)
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.