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France: U.S.-Iran Soccer Match Seen As Diplomatic Gesture

Prague, 22 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Watched on television by hundreds of millions of viewers, last night's soccer game between the U.S. and Iran probably stirred more people than any other World Cup match-up of two teams clearly not qualified to be champion. The reason had nothing to do with soccer, but everything to do with politics and diplomacy: For the past six months, Washington and Tehran have been moving away from almost 20 years of mutual hostility and hesitantly resuming contacts that could, eventually, lead to normal diplomatic and trade relations.

The soccer match, won by Iran by two goals to one, was only the last of a series of bilateral gestures that began in January with a call for the beginning of dialogue by Iran's moderate President Mohammed Khatemi during an internationally broadcast television interview (on CNN). A month later, a team of U.S. wrestlers went to Iran to participate in a tournament, marking the first time American athletes had competed there since before the 1979 Islamic fundamentalist revolution that sparked the break with Washington. In May, the Clinton Administration reached an accord with the European Union that in effect permitted a huge French-Russian-Malaysian oil and natural gas deal with Tehran, which otherwise would have been sanctioned by U.S. law.

Only days before the game last week, top U.S. officials spoke out forcefully --if still guardedly-- for closer ties with Iran. First, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggested that the two nations develop what she called "a road map leading to normal relations." Then President Clinton called, in his phrase, for "a genuine reconciliation" with Iran. And yesterday, in a televised message, Clinton said he hoped the soccer match would be what he described as "another step toward ending the estrangement between our nations."

The next step is up to Iran, and on Friday (June 19) State Department spokesman James Rubin said Tehran's response would come, in his words, "over time and not overnight." But there was a reaction of sorts in Tehran yesterday, and it was decidedly negative. The Iranian Parliament (Majlis), controlled by conservatives opposed to Khatami's reforms, impeached his interior minister, a key reformer.

That, analysts said, was the biggest internal challenge yet to Khatami's 13-month presidency. Khatami answered in kind by naming the ousted minister, Abdollah Nouri, to a newly created vice-presidential post and appointing one of Nouri's former deputies (Mostafa Tajzadeh), also known as a supporter of reforms, as the new interior minister. According to one U.S. analyst, Judith Kipper of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Affairs, the episode shows that Khatami is "self-confident and will meet every challenge the conservatives set up for him with whatever political means he has available."

Not all analysts were so sure of the President prevailing over his increasingly assertive internal opposition. The more skeptical among them emphasize that under Iran's Islamic oriented constitution, it is the country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei --not the President-- who controls the judiciary as well as radio and television and, most important, the military, intelligence and security services. Nouri, the ousted interior minister, had been encouraged by Khatami to challenge judicial decisions clearly aimed at supporters of reform --notably, Tehran's mayor (Gholamhossein Karabaschi), currently on trial on corruption charges.

The conservatives were quick to give a political spin to Iran's soccer victory. In a message to the victorious team , Ayatollah Khamenei called the U.S. squad "strong and arrogant opponents (who had, he said,) felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands." That was a distinct echo of the kind of anti-American propaganda that turned the U.S. into the Great Satan for 18 years and perhaps an indication of imminent open political conflict between Iran's conservative theologians and its reformist president.

In any case, the Iranian team itself saw the triumph more modestly. Coach Jalal Talebi said it was "a big victory for Iranians not because it was the U.S. but because it was (our) first in the World Cup." Striker Ali Daei said, "We came to play football, and that's all we thought about." One U.S. player had put the matter even more bluntly. The day before the match, defender Alexi Lalas said , "It's just a soccer game. (The rest) is a lot of crap."