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.