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Editorial - Iran's tentative olive branch

December 18, 1997

The call by Iran's reformist president for a dialogue with the United States is a welcome development, and President Clinton was right to react positively. It is far from certain, however, that the conciliatory remarks by Mohammed Khatami will actually lead to productive contacts between Washington and Tehran. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, real power in Iran has been closely hoarded by a clique of fanatical clerics

In recent weeks, a struggle has been occurring inside Iran between fundamentalist hard-liners determined to maintain rigid Islamic rule and more enlightened forces seeking to rein in the religious orthodoxy that dominates most aspects of life. The rift was on display last week at an international Islamic conference, where Khatami publicly took issue with an anti-Western diatribe by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It would be comforting to conclude that Khatami's subsequent support for a dialogue with the American people meant the moderates have the upper hand. But with Iran's ruling circles shrouded in secrecy, there is no real basis for this assumption. Indeed, a prominent ayatollah who favors curtailing clerical power has been arrested and may be tried for treason. The safest assessment is that the struggle for Iran's soul is still unresolved.

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Nevertheless, the confusion about developments in Iran should not distract the Clinton administration from the need to craft a new relationship with that country. Stale U.S. schemes for an international quarantine of Iran are being flouted by key American allies in Europe and the Middle East. Unless Washington wants to be a neglected wallflower at Iran's coming-out party, it must discard outdated policies.

That does not mean the U.S. should abandon its justified demands that Iran cease behaving like a rogue state - sponsoring terrorism, subverting the Middle East peace process, conspiring to develop or acquire nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. If Iran wants to rejoin the world community, it must be willing to act like a member of a community, not a rogue.

(c) 1997, Chicago Tribune.

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