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US Nod to Iran Could Set Back Moderates

Is Albright's Overture Mistimed?

For both Iran and the United States, the policy of "diplomacy by rhetoric" has reached significant proportions. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in the most forthright American move to ease nearly two decades of estrangement with Iran, spoke Wednesday about a "road map leading to normal relations."

Predictably, Iran yesterday welcomed the "positive tone" but added that "concrete action" would be required to normalize ties after an 18-year break.

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But the cautionary note was more than routine, and points toward the crisis that has been building in Iran between hard-line conservative clerics - for whom the 1979 Islamic Revolution rejects Western culture, and the US especially - and moderates.

The reform-minded President Mohamad Khatami set the conciliatory tone during a CNN interview in April, when he called upon the "great American people" to engage in a "cultural dialogue" and to break down the "wall of mistrust" between the US and Iran. Mr. Khatami was elected in May 1997 in a landslide that rattled the conservative clerical establishment.

The American response comes at a time when Khatami's government is under harsh attack, led by conservative clerics and parliamentarians who say the Islamic Republic is moving too quickly away from the ideology of the revolution.

Observers here say the current power play in Tehran's courts, newsrooms, and coffee houses is so uncertain that the US move can be easily argued to work both for or against Khatami. If he is seen to be too close to the US or eliciting too much goodwill from Washington, there could be a backlash.

On Sunday, Khatami's moderate Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri faces impeachment proceedings for his handling of pro- and anti-Khatami rallies, for his open support of reformist policies, and for allowing US academics to visit last month. Also on Sunday, Iran and the US face off in a politically charged game during soccer's World Cup.

Under way also is the trial of popular Tehran Mayor Ghollam Hossein Karbaschi, whose 11-day detention last April caused violent protests. And two pro-Khatami newspapers are faced with court proceedings aimed at shutting them down.

In such an atmosphere, diplomats say, a blessing from Washington - if not carefully calibrated - could be "the kiss of death."

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"We are ready to explore further ways to build mutual confidence and avoid misunderstandings," Ms. Albright said during a speech in New York at the Asia Society. Echoing some of Khatami's own words, she added: "As the wall of mistrust comes down, we can develop with the Islamic Republic, when it is ready, a road map leading to normal relations."

Current US economic policies of sanctions against Iran, however, and trying to thwart Iran's role in any Caspian Sea oil pipeline deals "remain unchanged." Since the Gulf War, the US has pursued a policy of "dual containment" against Iran and Iraq.

Albright said that "Iran's support for terrorism ... has not ceased," but lauded its efforts to fight drug smuggling across its borders and to mediate a peace in Afghanistan.

Though the US and Iran have signaled a willingness to look toward dtente, Iran has focused on broad people-to-people exchanges, while the Clinton administration has called for government-to-government talks, which many deem premature.

For Iran, the US move is a recognition that Iran has become too important in the region to ignore. Isolating Iran "has proven costly, unsuccessful, and detrimental to economic development in the entire region," said Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Hossein-Nejad Hosseinian, in response.

Martin Indyk, US undersecretary of state for Near East affairs, noted that the American move comes at a precarious time for Iran, but the ideological battle suggests that "engaging with us on a government-to-government level is more than the political traffic will bear in Iran at the moment," he said.

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