Activity Heats Up as U.S. and Iran Flirt With Closer Ties

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2004; Page A25

In a major diplomatic shift, Iran and the United States are seriously probing whether to reengage now that they have overlapping interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to officials and analysts from the two nations.

The interest is reflected in a burst of activity, including a trip to Tehran later this month by a delegation of congressional staffers. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who organized the visit, has called it "historic," adding, "This is a significant step, and we can build on it."

The State Department has prepared for Secretary Colin L. Powell an analysis on the potential to move forward, and the White House has approved meetings by Republican and Democratic legislators with Iranian officials, say U.S. officials and congressional sources.

"The Bush administration's attitude now is: No promises, no commitments, but let's see where this goes," a congressional source said.

The overtures come after a quarter-century of hostility -- and several false starts dating back to the secret arms-for-hostages swap in the mid-1980s. President Bush called Iran one of three nations in the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address.

In contrast, the State Department on Friday welcomed the congressional visit. "We've always encouraged exchanges, people to people exchanges, with Iran. We've certainly encouraged congressional travel, in general. So I guess it sounds like it would be fine with us if that's what they decided to do," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

The two U.S. interventions in countries that share long borders with Iran have galvanized a rethinking of policy in Washington and Tehran, officials and analysts say. Iran's agreement in December to allow surprise inspections by U.N. arms experts to verify that Tehran is not producing nuclear weapons also changed the atmospherics.

"Iran's acceptance of the terms was important, because it indicated a willingness to engage with the international community and a flexibility on controversial issues that we've not seen before," said Shaul Bakhash of the Brookings Institution.

Since then, Washington provided rescue personnel and aid after an earthquake leveled the historic city of Bam, killing 40,000, and offered to send a high-level humanitarian delegation led by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and including a Bush family member. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) last month at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, while last week Specter and Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) co-hosted Iranian U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif at a Capitol Hill dinner, a visit approved by the Bush administration. Also in the works is a visit by Iran's soccer team for games against D.C. United and the L.A. Galaxy in April.

Overtures have been made before. Yet the two nations have rarely been interested at the same time -- as they are now, say U.S. and Iranian analysts. Unlike past contacts, these are public. And while neither is ready for full rapprochement, "this time it's more than a flirtation," said Hadi Semati, a Tehran political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Both countries have more incentive to reengage than at any time since 1979, when the United States took in deposed shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Iranian students responded by seizing the U.S. Embassy and holding 52 Americans hostage. The crisis led to a break in relations.

"The potential is great, because the necessities are also great. Failing to work things out on major issues that concern Afghanistan and Iraq and wider regional security could harm both sides. Conversely, developing a working relationship will benefit both sides," said William G. Miller, a former U.S. diplomat in Iran now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Both the United States and Iran need stability in Iraq, a prerequisite for pulling out U.S. troops from that country. Iran has a Shiite majority with large Kurdish, Sunni and Arab minorities -- the same groups that are in Iraq. Internal tension in Iraq could easily spill across the 912-mile border.

In Afghanistan, Washington and Tehran share an intense interest in preventing the Taliban's return and stemming the Afghan heroin flow across the 585-mile border with Iran into Europe.

There are other incentives, too. In Iran, which today begins 11-day celebrations of the revolution's 25th year, officials no longer call the United States the Great Satan or use terms such as "Westoxication." Iran's focus is instead on why Washington blocks its membership in the World Trade Organization.

"There are clearly significant elements today in Iran who believe they need a more normalized relationship with the United States in order for them to fulfill their economic and political potential in the world," Biden said.

Fear, after the United States' use of military might on two of Iran's borders, is another reason for Iran's willingness to talk, Specter said. Others suggest that the changed regional security situation is more of a factor.

"The threat from Saddam [Hussein] is no longer there, so the opportunity for Iran to have a peaceful neighbor is more at play than the fact they saw that we can [win decisively]. The Iranians recognize that the Americans and Brits have helped them pacify two dangerous borders," said Rep. Victor F. Snyder (D-Ark.), who has met with Iran's U.N. envoy three times.

Conservatives in both capitals are still reluctant. "The irony is that Iran is one place Bush would like to find a way to diminish tensions. I'm not sure that exists with his neo-con advisers," Biden added.

Presidential elections in both countries between late 2004 and early 2005 also limit progress. Tehran's current crisis over parliamentary elections this month hampers action since Iran needs consensus on sensitive steps.

"Realistically, any major breakthrough will be postponed until after elections in both countries. Until then, there are only likely to be limited or necessary steps to manage the relationship, but even these can be important in setting a new tone and paving the way for the future," said Nasser Hadian, a Tehran University political scientist on sabbatical at Columbia University.

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