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Iran: EU And US Dance Toward Better Relations

Prague, 29 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- This week has seen a slight, cautious but still palpable warming-up in relations between Iran's new and apparently more moderate Islamic-led Government and both the 15 governments of the European Union and that of the United States. It may mark an important stage in what could turn out to be a qualified, though far from complete, reconciliation among the three parties, which have been quarreling among themselves for years.

The week's developments began at a Brussels meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday (Jan. 26), which announced the EU intended to review is current ban on high-level contacts with Iran. The ban was imposed last April, at Germany's initiative, after a court in Berlin ruled that Iranian authorities were directly involved in the killing of Iranian dissidents in the city a few years before. At the time, EU ambassadors to Tehran were withdrawn in a sign of collective protest, but they were sent back to Iran in December.

At the Brussels meeting, the 15 foreign ministers mandated their political directors to take another look at the restrictive measures imposed on Iran so the ministers themselves could debate the subject at a meeting next month. But Foreign Secretary Robin Cook of Britain, the current EU president, told his colleagues that any softening of the Union's policy toward Tehran must be coordinated with Washington. Cook said that a continuation of recent public disputes between the EU and the U.S. over Iranian policy could only make Tehran what he called "the net winner." He also warned that Iran was apparently continuing to seek to obtain weapons of mass destruction and to sponsor state terrorism

The EU has been especially critical of controversial recent U.S. legislation that would punish any company, domestic or foreign, that invests substantially in Iran's oil and gas sector. Brussels officials call the U.S. law "extra-territorial" in nature and therefore in violation of international trading rules.

The biggest challenge to the legislation came last Autumn from the giant French oil company Total, which announced it was investing 200 million dollars in developing Iranian off-shore oil and gas resources together with Russia's Gazprom utility and a Government-owned Malaysian oil company. The Administration in Washington has yet to decide how to deal with the Total case. But there have been reports that it is inclined to waive sanctions on Total in view of recent overtures made to the U.S. by recently elected Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

Within 48 hours of the Brussels initiative, Iran welcomed the action as what a foreign ministry spokesman called "a move toward greater realism" by the EU. But spokesman Mahmoud Mohammadi also called Cook's warning about Iran "surprising." He said that "allegations that Iran is striving to acquire weapons of mass destruction and (sponsoring) state terrorism...are baseless."

The next, and perhaps most important, step in the week's delicate diplomatic ballet came from Washington yesterday in a statement from President Bill Clinton on the eve of the end of the holy Moslem month of Ramadan. Speaking on U.S. Government media (Voice of America and Worldnet television), Clinton said he regrets the long estrangement between U.S. and Iran. He noted that the U.S. has what he called "real differences" with some Iranian polices, but said they were, in his words, "not insurmountable." Clinton also called for more exchanges between the two peoples and said that he hoped "the day would soon come when we can enjoy once again good relations with Iran."

Clinton's message to Iran went a bit further than overtures he made last month to Tehran, when he offered what he called "an honest dialogue" between the two nations. In December, Clinton was responding to earlier conciliatory remarks made by President Khatami, and Khatami soon replied to Clinton's overture in a much publicized interview with a U.S. television network (CNN). In the interview, Khatami praised the U.S. people, but ruled out government-to-government talks for the time being. Analysts say clerical hard-liners in Iran later put a damper on the burgeoning U.S.-Iran dialogue by criticizing Khatami's warm words to the U.S. people.

In open testimony to a U.S. Senate committee yesterday, CIA Director George Tenet said it was, in his words, "still too early to tell" whether Khatami's efforts to intensify the dialogue with Washington would bear fruit. Tenet said it appeared that there was what he described as a "genuine struggle (in Iran) now under way between hard-line conservatives and more moderate elements represented by (Khatami)." He noted that his agency had seen what he called "n-o reduction in Iran's efforts to support Hezbollah (the militant Party of God), radical Palestinians and militant Islamic groups that engage in terrorism."

After Clinton's message, the next step in the ballet would seem likely to come from Tehran. Analysts say it could come in a matter of days.