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Iran: U.S. Experts See Promise Amid Troubling Trends In Relations

A recent panel discussion at the Asia Society in New York examined the broad changes under way in Iran and the influence of events in Iraq. A U.S. official noted considerable advancement in U.S.-Iran cooperation in areas such as preventing drug trafficking from Afghanistan but also cited some troubling trends. An Iranian-born scholar said that, domestically, the common portrayal of liberal-versus-conservative clashes masks far more complex undercurrents that are changing the Iranian political scene.

New York, 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A top U.S. State Department official says there has been a strong reaffirmation of the reformists' mandate in Iran in the last few years. At the same time, he says, the great expectations that accompanied the election of President Mohammed Khatami have not amounted to much.

Philo Dibble, the deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near East Affairs, cited mixed signals he says Iran has been giving on foreign policy.

Speaking at a 13 November panel discussion at the Asia Society, Dibble noted two key elements with regard to U.S. policy toward Iran -- the events of 11 September 2001, and the U.S.-led operation to oust President Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq. There is understandable ambiguity, he says, in Tehran's reaction to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"How does Iran look at this event [the invasion of Iraq]? Is it positive in the sense that a dictator with whom Iran was at war for many years is now gone. Or is it negative in that the United States is now at the border? We're not sure, and I think I am not sure that the Iranian government is sure where its attitude is," Dibble said.

The U.S. and Iran both support UN-run counternarcotics operations against opium trafficking from Afghanistan. Other points of mutual interest, Dibble says, include continuing cooperation in regional security and stability initiatives.

"Our common interest in stability in Afghanistan outweighs the possibility of friction. Similarly, the situation in Iraq offers the possibility for further dialogue. Here, too, the stated interests of both sides match up very nicely. Iran has taken very evident actions with respect to, first of all, making its own statement that our interests are common. Second, in welcoming the establishment of the Governing Council, whatever you may think of the Iraqi Governing Council. And third, by participating in some fashion at the Madrid donors conference. All of these are very positive steps," Dibble said.

There are also, Dibble says, clear points of friction with Iran in respect to Iraq. Among them, Dibble repeated U.S. concerns that Iran is meddling in Iraq's internal affairs through support for militant groups, as well as Iran's concern about the continuing presence of the People's Mujahedin Organization (MEK), which is based in Iraq and seeks the overthrow of the Iranian regime.

Ervand Abrahamian, a U.S. citizen born in Iran, is professor of Middle East history at the City University of New York and was a participant in the Asia Society's panel discussion.

Abrahamian highlighted the democratic traditions of the Iranian constitution adopted after the 1979 revolution. Despite its obvious religious supremacy, he says, the constitution includes a mixture of references to individual rights and divine rights. But its democratic character is obvious, he says, as evidenced through the right of the general electorate to elect the parliament, the president and the local councils.

In the last 10 years, there has been an ongoing tug of war, Abrahamian says, pitting liberals who stress the democratic features of the constitution, against conservatives and fundamentalists who emphasize the theocratic features in the same constitution.

"This tug of war has produced a fundamental change in Iran -- I would say change as fundamental as the 1979 revolution. The change, basically, is in the whole discourse and the political culture. If you take key terms in the political language in the previous decades, the key terms in the language were terms such as 'revolution,' 'imperialism,' 'martyrdom,' 'crusade,' 'the dispossessed,' 'intoxication with the West.' The key terms now, especially in the last 10 years, are words such as 'democracy,' 'pluralism,' 'freedom,' 'equality,' 'liberty,' 'modernity,' 'civil society,' 'human rights,' 'dialog,' 'political participation' and the brand new term meaning 'citizenship,' " Abrahamian said.

Among the main changes promoted by liberals, Abrahamian says, are the condition that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei should supervise rather than directly control the state; that the Guardians Council (the Supreme Court) should give written justification for vetoing legislation and should not interfere in elections; and that the courts should abide by the laws and the constitution itself.

What is new, Abrahamian says, is that these arguments now are being developed by people with religious affiliations, many of them tenured in teaching at theological schools:

"What they have to say -- even though it doesn't sound new -- has much more impact because we can say, it is legitimized within the religious culture of the society. Therefore, I would say, it's more like a cultural revolution, rather than being imposed or brought in for new ideas from outside," Abrahamian said.