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Middle East: US Still Wants To Talk Directly To Iran

Washington, 24 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two slightly different views of the meaning of Iran's ballistic missile test emerged from official Washington's reaction to the news on Thursday.

At the White House, presidential spokesman Michael McCurry said the missile flight test is contrary to the interests of peace and stability in the region and indicates that there has been, as he put it, no change of heart in the Islamic regime's approach to international relations.

However, at the State Department, spokesman James Rubin said that while weapons development by Iran is just one of several issues the U.S. has profound concerns about, "it doesn't mean that we don't want to have an opportunity to express these concerns directly."

Rubin said that in addition to trying to block Iran from obtaining missile technology from third countries, the U.S. can prevent it from threatening its neighbors by expressing U.S. concerns directly. That, he said, also offers Iran the chance to directly express its concerns to the United States.

The U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979 after Iranian militants took more than 50 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The U.S. still considers Iran as a state that supports international terrorism. Iran has repeatedly condemned the U.S. as an enemy of Islam.

Hopes for improvement in relations were raised earlier this year following the election of President Mohammad Khatami, who called for dialogue between the Iranian and American peoples.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright outlined the Iranian policies the U.S. is most concerned about, but she also spoke of what she called positive developments that included conciliatory statements about Afghanistan and terrorism, drug trafficking and refugees.

Rubin said Albright offered a road map for future improvements once Iran was prepared to talk about U.S. concerns. He called the missile test, "bad news," but he also said the U.S. still views the election of Khatami as a good omen.

According to U.S. reports, Iran developed the missile largely with the help of North Korea and that the missile tested -- a rocket Iran calls the Shahab Three -- is a North Korean model. U.S. experts say the missile has a range greater than 1,000 kilometers, making it able to reach parts of Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Rubin said the test is significant because it shows that Iran's aggressive effort to develop missiles with a longer range is making progress. Iran already had short range missiles called Scuds.

The spokesman also pointed out that it takes a long time and a number of flight tests to bring a missile up to what is called an operational level, meaning it is ready for use. Rubin said it would be premature to say that the test suggests Iran has medium range missiles ready for deployment.

However, he said that once Iran has the missile in production, it "will have the ability to strike more distant targets, including Israel, portions of Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia." At that point, said Rubin, the missile, "would therefore have an impact and a significance strategically."

Rubin said that while the U.S. has been, "extremely concerned for some time about Iran's aggressive efforts to obtain missile technology from Russian firms," the missile that was tested, "was largely derived from North Korean technology." He said Iran has been working with North Korea for many years.

Rubin said the U.S. has been working with Russia to prevent Iran from obtaining technology from private Russian enterprises, and he said "real progress," has been made.

Rubin said that, "Over the past year, the government in Russia has enacted sweeping new export controls, which is the basis by which you can change policies and practices and have a substantive impact on a subject like nonproliferation. They have shut down some activities, made arrests, and announced last week that they are investigating nine Russian entities for cooperating with Iran."