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Western Press Review: Comments Assess U.S.-Iran Warm-Up

By Joel Blocker/Dora Slaba/Lisa Kammerud

Prague, 19 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- On Wednesday (June 17) Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called for improved relations between the U.S. and Iran, bitter adversaries for almost 20 years. Yesterday President Bill Clinton said that the U. S. was seeking what he called "a genuine reconciliation (with an Iran now) changing in a positive way under the reformist influence of President Mohammed Khatami." Western news commentators and analysts today assess the importance of this dramatic U.S. initiative and its chances for success.

GUARDIAN: The strategic implications of this move are huge

Britain's Guardian newspaper says that "the Great Satan (Iran's long-time opprobrious term for the U.S.) is beginning to become just a little bit cuddly." It calls Albright's speech "eminently sensible, particularly after several months of mixed signals from Washington in response to the new (Iranian) president's election, which can only have given encouragement to his enemies in Tehran." In an editorial, the paper writes: "(Albright's) proposal to develop a 'road map' towards normalization strikes the right note: yesterday's initial negative reaction from Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi should not be taken too seriously. Both sides will now begin a cautious process of sounding out." The paper also says: "The strategic implications of this move are huge in more than one geopolitical direction. An improvement in Tehran's relations with the U.S. would impact positively elsewhere in the Middle East, helping to disarm one of Israel's most potent concerns. If the UN is coming closer to lifting sanctions on Iraq as the process of weapons inspection nears completion, then there is all the more reason to bring its Iranian neighbor out of the diplomatic cold. Iran's involvement in the tangled oil politics of central Asia is another reason for establishing a more consultative mood with Tehran."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: President Mohammed Khatami represents an opportunity for Washington

In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Tomas Avenarius calls Albright's offer "a sensation that has been due for a long time." He writes: "The U.S. has understood that the moderate president Mohammed Khatami, who was elected a year ago against the wishes of the (Ayatollah Ali) Khomeini faction, represents an opportunity for Washington....Whether it is the exploitation of oil reserves in Central Asia, the peace process in the Middle East or the endangering of world peace through weapons of mass destruction, the bitter hostility between Washington and Teheran handicaps political progress on several fronts. The U.S .cannot topple the Islamic regime and the mullahs are unable to keep their Islamic revolution on the boil while their sanctions-plagued people are living in want." The commentary goes on: "The US initiative, which was preceded by a courageous interview on CNN TV by Khatami in January, also offers Iran chances to come to terms with the 'Great Satan' without having to give up its own path. The process could now finish up with a democratization of the (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini 1979) revolution. This could --indeed, must-- then be exposed to competition from other --Western, perhaps?-- forms of society. That," he concludes, "would be the most desirable course of events."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: The time has come for both parties to achieve a new awareness of how to deal with each other

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote yesterday (June 18) in an editorial: "A country like Iran must seem to Americans --and not only to them-- as a book with seven seals. Some analysts in Washington appear to be reckoning with this fact as (Iran's) Islamic movement has proved to be a more permanent phenomenon than was first believed. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that until now U.S. Middle East policy...has seemed paradoxical, often contradictory and primarily, if not solely , concerned with oil and Israel." The FAZ continued: "This one-sided policy.. .has probably been too limited and frequently has incited Muslims against Americans and the West in general....Apparently, the time has come for both parties to achieve a new awareness of how to deal with each other in the future. If there is any hope of this, it may become from the way the World Cup Soccer match (on June 20) transpires between Iran and America."

TRIBUNE DE GENEVE: Much more needs to happen in the Persian Gulf area

Switzerland's Tribune de Geneve today also alludes to this Sunday's U.S.-Iran soccer game, saying: "Fans of strong emotions, who are salivating at the prospect of the match, are not likely to be disappointed. Its a good bet," Andre Naef writes in a commentary, "that the game, directed by a Swiss referee --thus, doubly neutral-- will take place in the best sporting spirit. Especially coming after (Albright's Wednesday) remarks..." The commentary then asks: "Does this beginning of a warm-up between Washington and Teheran foreshadow a the Cold War era, when the U.S. an Iran marched hand in hand?" For that to happen" Naef responds, "much more needs to happen in the Persian Gulf area." He adds: "For its part, the Clinton Administration does not have much elbow room, either. Thus, in her speech offering an olive branch (that is, peace offering) to Tehran, Mrs. Albright ruled out any easing of the U.S.' economic embargo against Iran, even though she knows very well that these sanctions --desired by the most conservative (and apparently majority) group in Congress-- have only one effect: they leave the field open to European competitors."

DIE WELT: The U.S. is trying to exert a positive influence

Today's Die Welt daily calls Albright's speech the "clearest offer of normalization (yet)" The paper says that the U.S. is trying to exert a what it calls a "positive influence" on Iran on issues such as weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. This positive attitude, the paper adds, would be welcomed by U.S. businesses, which did not want to leave Iran to the Europeans, says Die Welt, "without a struggle."

LES ECHOS: It was easier to break relations than to rebuild them

In France, the financial daily Les Echos writes in an editorial: "With unaccustomed quickness, Iranian authorities have hailed the 'positive tone' of Albright's remarks. Despite repeated criticism from the conservative wing of the regime, President Khatami's Government has multiplied its (friendly) overtures and Washington could not any longer pretend to deny them." It went on: "It's now 18 years since the taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, triggering the break in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Both are now coming to grips with the fact that it was easier to break relations than it is to rebuild them. That's why we are witnessing small, prudent steps, mixed in with a tone of discourse that remains firm in its principles. The Americans still maintain their economic embargo against the Islamic Republic. The Iranians say they are still waiting for 'concrete actions.'"

FINANCIAL TIMES: Mr. Khatami will be forced to draw deeper on his knowledge of Machievelli

In a commentary in today's Financial Times of Britain, David Gardner asks whether Iran is ready for the "road map" toward normal bilateral relations that Albright mentioned. He writes: "In the year since Mohammed Khatami's stunning election victory over candidate groomed by the conservative leaders of the Islamic revolution, the President has transformed the atmosphere of Iran. Just as noticeably, he has changed the country's image in the eyes of hitherto hostile Arab neighbors --breaking through from Washington's previous strategy of isolating Tehran." The commentary continues: "'At a certain point, the man will have to take risks,' says one Western ambassador (in Tehran). He will have to attack the conservatives on the economy and wrench it from the control of (vested interests).' These interests," Gardner continues, "are likely to resist the smiling cleric's charm. They will also make it harder to proceed down the road mapped out by Mrs. Albright." He concludes: "Mr. Khatami will be forced to draw deeper on his knowledge of Machievelli."

NEW YORK TIMES: The U.S. announces it will not try to punish the regime

The one strongly dissenting voice heard today is that of New York Times columnist Abe Rosenthal. In a commentary, he says: "(Albright) added a high shine to Clintonian appeasement policy by including under its sheltering arms the Government of Iran. Yes, indeed, the Iran that executed thousands of its own citizens, held 53 Americans hostage for 444 days in the U.S. Embassy, the same Iran that boasts of its infiltration of Bosnia, that killed Jews in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and almost daily sends to Damascus a planeload of weapons and funds for terrorists around the world." The commentary adds: "As arranged, President Clinton...joined in the song, asking for 'a sense (that Iranians) are prepared' to turn away from terrorism and distribution of weapons and funds for terrorists around the world."

Rosenthal goes on: "(Albright's) proposal was supposedly made because Iranians elected a 'moderate' as president. But the U.S. and every other nation knows that political, military and government power is not held in Iran by President Khatami --who incidentally spreads non-moderate hatred himself whenever he is in the mood. Those powers are held by a regime of fundamentalist ayatollahs and their security armies, who turned the country into a hell for Iranians and the command post for international terrorist." He concludes: "By pretending that the Iranian regime that lives by terrorism might end it, by absolving (other) countries pouring money into the government and therefore its killers and floggers, the U.S. announces it will not try to punish or even hamper the regime, and despite the past, would help it."