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Iranian Links to US Boosted by Trade, Burdened by Past


ALTHOUGH trade between the United States and Iran is on the rise and Iranians are willing to discuss the possible resumption of diplomatic ties between the two nations, a rapprochement seems unlikely anytime soon.

At last week's celebration of Iran's Islamic revolution, the chant made famous during the seizure of the US Embassy here in 1979 - "Death to America" - once again filled Tehran's Azadi Square. Western diplomats say the tone of the celebrations showed the strength of anti-US sentiment within the government and dashed Western hopes for an early normalization of ties.

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Iranian officials feel they have made several opening gestures over the past few years, including their neutrality in the 1991 Gulf war against Iraq, according to a senior diplomat in Tehran. They now want the release of assets that were frozen by the US government after the seizure of the US Embassy.

Says a senior aide to Mohsen Nourbaksh, the minister of economy and finance, "The amount of Iranian money frozen in the US totals $10 billion, which includes the interest accumulated over the years."

Iranians who favor friendlier relations between Iran and the US argue that economics may force the resumption of ties. Trade between the two nations is expected to reach $1 billion this year, according to a senior Finance Ministry official, placing the US in the top tier of Iran's trading partners.

"We're moving toward a totally free economy," an Iranian journalist says. "Our commercial exchanges with the US are going up by the day. The logic drives us toward the resumption of diplomatic ties."

Some traditional symbols of US society are making their way into Islamic Iran. Cans of Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola, imported from the United Arab Emirates, appear in Tehran grocery windows, and Coca-Cola has signed a deal to build a production plant in the northeastern town of Birjand.

Iranians were stunned recently when Bank Melli, Iran's largest financial institution, announced it would begin to issue Visa credit cards. After the revolution, Western credit cards were banned in Iran. Visa is the first to return.

But Iranian feeling toward the US remains ambivalent. When a group of teenagers who were chanting anti-American slogans at the revolutionary anniversary learned that this reporter was working for a US newspaper, they offered to share a hot boiled sugar beet, a winter delicacy.

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One youth explained that he had nothing against American citizens, but believed the US foreign policy in the Middle East was aimed at humiliating Muslims, and Iran in particular.

Iranian journalists say that many Iranians remain bitter about US support for Baghdad - despite an officially neutral position - during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

This resentment has boosted Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who over the past few months has opposed the improvement of US-Iran relations.

"Our people will never reconcile with their enemies," he said in a Jan. 25 speech.

Even Iran's more moderate president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, has tried to adopt Mr. Khamenei's tenor. Asked at a recent press conference why Iran is not willing to hold talks with the US, Mr. Rafsanjani responded: "As long as our assets in the US remain frozen and that country supports Israel and adopts a hostile approach to the Muslim nations and the Islamic Republic, we shall not reconsider our positions."

"The Iranian government believes the ball is presently in the US court," says a European ambassador. "They have the feeling that they haven't been rewarded for a series of positive gestures they made over the past few years, which include the freeing of Western hostages in Lebanon, their neutrality in the 1991 Gulf war, and the assistance they provided to Iraqi Kurds fleeing their homeland in the aftermath of this war.

"I must confess," this envoy adds, "that in my opinion their arguments are partly true."

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