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Iran: Foreign Minister Urges Neighbors To Cooperate

By Michael Lelyveld and Robert McMahon

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has called on his country's neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus to cooperate on developing energy resources in the region. Our correspondent reports Kharrazi's appeal came at a meeting of prominent business and academic representatives this week.

New York, 20 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's foreign minister has again called for his country to be the prime transit point for energy resources from Central Asia and the Caucasus to world markets.

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi last night repeatedly said that Iran has the best developed infrastructure for the transfer of oil and said it could help spur economic progress for the entire region. He spoke at a round table in New York sponsored by the Eurasia Group and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. His speech was heavily attended by representatives of Western oil firms.

The U.S. has blocked consideration of Iran as a transit route for energy resources from places such as Azerbaijan. Kharrazi did not directly mention the United States but called for the countries of the region to reject the influence of "external powers" and to work together to promote economic development.

Kharrazi acknowledged that tensions in the region will continue to obstruct economic progress in the near future. But he said Iran stands ready to promote peace, and cited his country's role in the recent successful peace initiatives in Tajikistan.

Kharrazi has been holding a series of bilateral meetings with his regional counterparts on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session. The talks have focused on issues such as the oil industry and establishing a legal basis for establishing the boundaries of the Caspian Sea.

He said domestically Iran is pursuing a number of economic reforms dedicated to reducing the government's role in the economy, pursuing privatization and reducing the country's reliance on the petroleum industry.

The meeting was the second in two days involving Kharrazi and prominent academics and business leaders in the United States. On Monday, Kharrazi visited Harvard University in a meeting that was arranged without publicity.

Officials at Harvard and at Iran's Mission to the United Nations in New York said that Kharrazi and an Iranian delegation traveled to Boston for a private dinner with a small group of professors and Middle East specialists at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Kharrazi was scheduled to appear earlier Tuesday at a breakfast sponsored by the ILEX Foundation in Boston for what were described as "cultural" contacts. Officials at the ILEX Foundation did not return calls to our correspondent in Boston.

The appearance at Harvard reflects a U.S. policy of allowing greater "people-to-people" access for Iranian officials within the United States. It is also consistent with the UN initiative for a "dialogue among civilizations," a theme originated by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

Iranian diplomats are normally required to apply to the State Department for permission to travel beyond a 40-kilometer radius of United Nations headquarters in New York. Permission to accept invitations to conferences outside New York was routinely denied until earlier this year. A spokesman at Iran's mission to the United Nations said that Kharrazi is also expected to visit the University of California at Los Angeles this week.

U.S. and Iranian officials consciously avoided publicity for the Harvard visit in a sign of the tentative and potentially controversial nature of the contacts.

The mixed message on the public nature of the Iranian contacts seems to stem from concerns that they may be politicized. In the past, the State Department has denied visas to Iranian officials to address oil industry conferences because of concerns that the appearances could be used to criticize U.S. sanctions and pipeline policies. The emphasis on "cultural" contacts and the restrictions on press access may help to avoid such issues at a sensitive stage in improving relations.

A State Department spokesman in Washington declined to discuss the implications of Kharrazi's travels, saying only, "We treat each visa request individually." The official added, "He's going to academic settings."

The visits follow a series of near contacts between high-level U.S. and Iranian officials this month at the United Nations. Both U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attended a speech given by President Khatami at the UN Millennium Summit. Albright was also present at a meeting with Kharrazi as part of the "six-plus-two" contact group of countries on Afghanistan.