London, 24 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers have agreed to lift a ban on top-level contacts with Iran in response to what they call "encouraging" developments in the country since the election last May of President Mohammad Khatami.
Khatami, a former political science lecturer, has set a new agenda by speaking in favor of a free market, the emancipation of women and more cultural and social freedom. In contrast with others who have led Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he is seen as a moderate.
The EU foreign ministers said after a meeting in Brussels yesterday that they welcomed the new approach, and that the EU should respond positively by gradually expanding contacts.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who chaired the meeting, said it was time to respond to the "shoots of glasnost" and take steps to end Iran's political and economic isolation.
Reports say the agreement by the 15 EU countries came after pressure from Italy and Greece, which have commercial interests in Iran, for a rapid normalization of ties, although diplomats said that Germany and Britain favored a more cautious approach.
The EU move ends a 10-month stand-off with Teheran that began after a German court ruled that Iranian officials ordered the 1992 killing of three Kurdish dissidents in Berlin. This prompted the EU to suspend a dialogue and ban high-level contacts.
Although extending an olive branch yesterday, the EU foreign ministers called for talks with Iran over allegations it is seeking weapons of mass destruction, and has undermined the Middle East peace process. They also said Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence against Salman Rushdie must be lifted before relations can improve.
The EU move to resume contacts with Teheran is a break with U.S. policy aimed at isolating Iran because of its alleged support for terrorism and its "aggressive" attitude to its Gulf neighbors.
Even before yesterday's statement, the Americans and Europeans were on a collision course because French and British energy companies are defying U.S. sanctions against Iran.
The U.S. Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, passed by Congress two years ago, requires President Clinton to impose sanctions on any company investing more than $20 million in either countries' energy sector. The policy is bitterly controversial in Iran with officials saying the sanctions are illegal and threaten the sovereignty of other nations.
In September, a consortium including the French energy giant, Total, threw a direct challenge to the legislation when it signed a $2 billion deal with Iran to develop the huge South Pars gas field.
Clinton is expected shortly to declare that the project violates U.S. sanctions law. But the London Financial Times reports that Clinton is expected to delay action for 90 days in the hope the EU will agree to block technology transfers and favorable loans to Iran.
As the EU agrees to resume contacts with Iran, there are signs that influential U.S. policy-makers, too, may want to improve ties, particularly since Khatami's overture of last December, when he spoke of his respect for "the great people of the United States."
Washington is under pressure to drop the sanctions from U.S. energy firms who say the Europeans are stealing an advantage. But correspondents say the U.S. is hesitating: It does not want to be deceived into warming relations prematurely, and is unsure whether Khatami either wants, or can soften, Iranian policy.