Iranians See Talks With U.S. as Historic

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 20, 2006

TEHRAN, March 19 -- Iran's acceptance of direct talks with the United States over Iraq is being regarded among Iranians as a major foreign policy development, a historic if still tentative departure from 27 years of official enmity that held the government of the "Great Satan" as one to be spoken against, but never with.

"America's objective in inviting Iran for talks is to send a message to Islamic movements throughout the world that Iran gave in to Washington after 27 years of resistance," Kayhan, a hard-line daily newspaper, warned Saturday in an editorial that analysts said underscored the significance of Iran's shift.

"Announce as soon as possible that you won't have any dialogue with the U.S. and avoid entering a destructive trap that has been prepared for Islamic Iran," the editorial continued.

Vehement opposition to the United States has been a pillar of Iran's theocratic system since 1979, the year an angry population overthrew the monarch Washington had helped install 26 years earlier in a coup engineered with the help of the CIA. From the U.S. side, a similar enmity was embedded in policy when student militants overran the red-brick U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage and holding them for more than a year.

The United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran, and over the next quarter-century both countries consistently found a reliable villain in the other.

Inside Iran, however, an appetite for rapprochement grew along with a population whose youthful majority had no memory of the revolution.

In 2002, a poll found that three-quarters of Iranians surveyed favored talks with the United States. The pollster was thrown in jail, but the reality drove a quiet competition between Iran's two rival political forces.

"Whoever could take the prize" of U.S. rapprochement would, it was widely believed, dominate Iranian politics for the foreseeable future, said Mehdi Karrubi, a moderate cleric who was speaker of the last parliament dominated by reformers.

The competition, however, had paralyzed the effort: Neither side would allow the other to reach out to the United States without risking accusations of betraying the Islamic revolution.

That changed last year, when conservative clerics edged reformists out of government, unifying Iran's elaborate ruling structure for the first time in nearly a decade. It also cleared the way for the opening to Washington, and even reformists urged the conservatives to act.

"This might be a historic irony, but it's true the state is in 'harmony,' " said Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent reformist theoretician, speaking before the announcement of the direct talks. "No time has been more convenient for talks between the two countries. We are less sensitive than at any time since the revolution."

A few conservatives quietly urged the same. Behind the scenes of Iran's conservative establishment, insiders whispered about the prospect of negotiations.

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