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At Crucial Juncture, Iran Seeks Edge on U.S.

"The problem America has with Iran is not political, not economic. It's religion, now that the new conservatives . . . are behind Bush," said Mohammed Hashemi, a U.S.-educated member of Iran's Expediency Council, a body that weighs in during deadlocks between parliament and a top clerical panel. "U.S. policy toward Iran is based on a religious war."

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have always been complex, haunted by the revolution's introduction of militant Islam and the hostage trauma. Today, relations are troubled by Iran's support for extremist groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, as well as by Iran's suspected weapons program.

Protesters in Tehran demonstrate against the U.S.-led raid on Fallujah, Iraq in November. Analysts say the U.S. position in the region is becoming weaker. (AP/isna)

In contrast to its continued reluctance to deal with Tehran, Washington restored diplomatic contacts with Vietnam after a war that killed about 57,000 Americans and over 1 million Vietnamese, and with China after a Communist revolution that cost millions of Chinese lives, produced a nuclear bomb and led to a cold war with the West.

"It makes no sense 25 years later not to be talking to each other," L. Bruce Laingen, a retired U.S. diplomat and the ranking hostage in the embassy seizure, said in an interview in Washington. "I'm not advocating relations tomorrow, but we have a lot to talk about and we should start. The U.S. is staring [Iran] in the face on both borders and on the Gulf."

Whether Iran's conservatives and a second Bush administration will confront each other is hotly debated here. Despite stubborn rhetoric, some major political figures sound almost wistful about the potential for a diplomatic thaw.

"This very hot atmosphere of tension . . . should be defused, and we should move toward a friendlier or more tranquil situation. Continuing tensions are not in the interest of either the U.S. or Iran," said Mohammed Javad Larijani, a former presidential contender.

A senior U.S. official involved in Iran policy described Iran as "the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East." Iranians, he said, have a pathological desire -- like a little brother who wants his big brother's approval -- for us to say we respect them."

But other analysts suggested the success of Iran's conservatives could give some the self-confidence to adopt a more accommodating stance toward Washington.

"Now that they feel they are on top, some factions of conservatives are looking at reaching out to the U.S.," said Hadi Semati, a Tehran University political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Even a few from the ideological camp would not be as adamant as their predecessors."

But the conservatives' chief ideologue, Hussein Shariatmadari, took a tougher line. "We are not enemies of American citizens," he said. "But America is different. When countries commit atrocities against us, we cannot accept relations with them."

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