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Iran: U.S. Relations Warming Up

Washington, 27 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The State Department says the United Sates has made several gestures toward Iran and reiterated a call for a dialogue between the two governments to resolve their differences.

Spokesman James Rubin told reporters Thursday that Washington recently gave permission to a senior Iranian diplomat attached to the United Nations to travel to Los Angeles to deliver a speech. He said the U.S. also granted a visa to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's director of women's affairs for a visit to Washington.

Rubin says: "We do seek to encourage change in Iranian policies and actions and we have noted in the past positive changes in rhetoric."

The State Department spokesman says recent people-to-people exchanges, which included athletes, have gone well. He says American visitors to Iran have been treated with warmth and courtesy by both ordinary Iranians and officials.

However, Rubin says, while these contacts are valuable, a direct dialogue between Washington and Tehran would be the best way to solve the issues that divide the two countries.

He says: "There has been too long since such a dialogue has happened. We would raise issues of concern of ours in such a dialogue, we would expect them to do the same, and we believe that through direct dialogue we can overcome the problems."

The State Department lists Iran as a state that supports terrorism. Its official travel advisory warns Americans that it is dangerous to visit Iran.

The two countries have no direct diplomatic ties and there is a U.S. ban against trade. Washington says Iran is continuing its programs to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as well as missiles to deliver them.

But Tehran may be moving away from some of its hard line policies.

The New York Times reported Thursday that American intelligence studies indicate that there is some evidence that Iran has begun to reduce its support for activities the U.S. defines as terrorists.

The report said U.S. President Bill Clinton is heartened by steps Khatami has taken to impose the rule and law in Iran.

The New York Times says that Khatami reportedly also privately told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that Iran will not oppose a Middle East peace agreement acceptable to the Palestinian people.

Rubin says the State Department is not able to provide a quick assessment of whether there are major Iranian policy changes under way.

He says: "The concerns we have developed over time, and we will need time to make considered, prudent judgments about whether changes have occurred."

For now, however, Rubin says the U.S. will continue to facilitate people-to-people exchanges by working with private organizations who want to host Iranian visitors or send groups to Iran.

He promised that Washington would review expeditiously on a case-by-case basis Iranian visa applications to the United States.