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Debate

Iran shifts spark new U.S. interest in ties

By Desert Man

 

With one eye on the emerging oil boom in Central Asia, the United States is dropping fresh hints of an interest in improving ties with Iran, where a new government, including some moderates, was approved last week. The signals -- of little more than a readiness to respond should Iran decide to shift its foreign policy course -- were being put out more in hope than expectation.

Previous approaches since relations were severed in 1980 during the long crisis over the seizure of U.S. diplomatic hostages in Tehran have been rejected by an Iranian leadership that still sees Washington as ``the great Satan.'' But the unexpected victory of reformer Mohammad Khatami in presidential elections in May, and now the block approval of his cabinet by the Iranian parliament have revived U.S. interest in watching which way things are going in Tehran. ``To the extent that the election of President Khatami and the approval of his cabinet indicate that the will and welfar of the people of Iran will be reflected by its government, we would welcome that,'' said State Department spokesman James Rubin. Roger Kangas, a scholar at the Central Asia Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said, ``People are taking this seriously.''

``There is a sense of 'Will there be new developments or even just new choices of words?'. Likewise I suspect Iran is looking for the same from the U.S.,'' Kangas said. Significant appointments by Khatami include new Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani, a relative liberal, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who spent years living in the United States in his former role as ambassador to the United Nations.

Iran's exiled opposition and many Western scholars argue, however, that the new ``moderate'' image is a sham and that neither Khatami nor any government he appoints have any power to change Iran's foreign policy.

This, they say, is controlled by Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and by anti-Western extremists loyal to him. Any changes are likely to involve only domestic affairs, these analysts say.

One prominent Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, told a prayer meeting last Friday, ``Governments come and go but our principles stay intact. These principles are Islam, Islamic Revolution and not giving in to Israel andAmerica as long as they treat us with hostility.''

U.S. analysts say the administration has to tread with extreme caution in the minefield of relations with Iran, a country seen by Israel and its powerful lobby in the United States as the greatest single threat to the Jewish state. U.S.conditions for a dialogue with Iran, reaffirmed by officials last week, include agreement by Tehran to discuss its alleged support for terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons and its hostility to the Middle East peaceprocess. Iran insists that Washington must drop the terrorism charge.

While the rhetoric has remained unchanged, analysts say that what is new is the growing importance of Iran's northern neighbors, former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia who are sitting on as much as 200 billion barrels of oil reserves.

This fact, some analysts believe, could eventually lead the United States to see Iran less from the perspective of the Middle East and more in its central Asian context.

Iran, a major oil power, sits astride one of the key routes for piping out these reserves, which oil companies are now ready to bring to market.

``There is a general push for strengthening ties with Iran in the region,'' Kangas said. ``You can't avoid Iran. These countries associate with Iran. Pipelines are going to go through.'' The United States says it wants to see orderly development of the oilfields.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, in a speech last month, called for efforts to avoid a 19th Century-style ``great game'' of competition between the major powers over Central Asian oil. Already Washington has decided,controversially, that it will not stand in the way of a plan by Turkey to import natural gas from Turkmenistan via a pipeline through Iran.

The administration ruled last month that the project did not violate the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which penalizes foreign companies that invest in the oil or gas sectors in Iran or Libya. U.S. companies are banned from dealing with Iran. While Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other officials insisted the decision was not meant as an olive branch to Iran, some commentators said it appeared to be dictated by commercial concerns.

``On the one hand, the United States constantly reminds everyone that under United States law, Iran -- like Cuba -- is economically 'untouchable','' said Stephan-Goetz Richter, publisher of the TransAtlantic Weekly Wire newsletter.

``Yet this policy seems expendable as soon as American interests decide to go after Central Asian oil,'' Richter wrote in the New York Times.

 


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