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Mideast: Analysis From Washington --Toward A More Normal Iran?

Washington, 10 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Iranian President-elect Mohammed Khatami has sent a number of signals that he wants to end the current confrontation between his country and much of the rest of the world.

But despite these statements and actions, Khatami faces two uphill battles: at home against the entrenched Islamic leadership responsible for Iran's policies in the past, and abroad against both those sceptical about any such change and those opposed to any shift.

Last Thursday, Khatemi said that he was "opposed to terrorism" and that he was for "easing tensions with other countries."

Since then, Tehran has sent messages or taken steps that appear to give content to those words. On Friday, an Iranian newspaper with close ties to the government welcomed a recent statement by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel calling for talks.

The Tehran Times said that "a dialogue with the West should be held for removing misunderstandings on issues such as human rights and international terrorism."

The same day, Iran signed an agreement expanding educational exchanges with Morocco, one of the more conservative Islamic countries.

On Sunday, Khatami sent a message to the Saudi king expressing hope that their two countries could improve ties. And the Iranian parliament passed a ban on the manufacture and deployment of chemical weapons.

And on Monday, Iran signed an energy and economics accord with Ukraine and said that it wanted to improve relations with Yugoslavia. And Tehran announced that Pakistan's prime minister would be visiting Iran on June 16-17.

All these steps suggest that Khatami at least wants Iran to pull back from its direct confrontation with the West and to live in the international community as a normal country rather than a rogue state.

To the extent that happens, it would fulfill the hopes U.S. President Bill Clinton expressed in London on May 29 that the election of Khatami was "interesting and hopeful" and that the "estrangement" between Tehran and Washington could be "bridged."

But there are three important and interrelated reasons why the prospects for a dramatic warming in relations between Iran and the outside world are anything but certain.

First, Khatami is anything but a Western liberal or some kind of "Iranian Gorbachev," as some in the media have suggested. And he does not have a free hand.

While more moderate than many Iranian leaders, Khatami was hand picked as a presidential candidate by the still very radical Islamic leadership of the country. As a result, his recent moves may be tactical rather than strategic.

That is all the more likely because the religious leadership of the country has a greater say in foreign policy than does the president-elect.

Further, the very shakiness of the regime in Tehran revealed by the election of Khatami last month may tempt them to play up conflicts with other countries and especially with the United States as a means of solidifying their power.

Thus, it should have come as no surprise that Tehran rejected Clinton's expression of hope for better relations more or less out of hand.

Second, the West remains deeply sceptical about a country that has sponsored terrorism in the past.

Too many times over the past decade, hopes that Tehran was going to become a country like any other have been raised only to be dashed by one or another outrage apparently sponored by the Iranians.

As a result, Tehran will have to do more and for a longer period than a few weeks to convince Washington or other Western capitals that it has really changed.

And third, Russia directly benefits from the hostility between Iran and the West and thus is likely to seek ways to prevent it from being overcome.

As long as the West and especially the United States will not deal with Tehran, the states of Central Asia and the Caucasus will be subject to Russian influence because Moscow can control their access to the outside world.

To that end, the Russian government has provided the radical Iranian government access to nuclear equipment over the objections of the United States. And only last Friday, a Russian company licensed an Iranian firm to produce aircraft engines.

Many in Iran understand that Russian willingness to provide such assistance reflects a Russian geopolitical rather than financial calculation. And consequently, they will do what they can to defend their own interests.

And because these three reasons reinforce one another -- internal opposition, Western scepticism, and Russian interests -- the chances that Khatami will succeed quickly and easily are small.

But his decision to try to break out of the vicious circle Iran had found itself in gives some basis for hope.