Iranians See Talks With U.S. as Historic
Desire for Improving Ties Grew With Population Too Young to Recall Hostage Crisis

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.

When the announcement came Thursday, it was pointedly public. Ali Larijani, who heads the Supreme National Security Council, announced the decision to parliament, then summoned American correspondents to interviews. With a level gaze, he said Iran would accept the invitation of the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, to talk about Iraq.

Analysts and politicians said the decision showed every sign of carrying the weight of Iran's ultimate authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And some conservatives fell in line.

"It is obvious that when the Iranian officials present an idea, it is a calculated act," said Habibollah Asgaroladi, a leader of the Islamic Coalition Society, according to the ISNA news agency. "Considering the problems in the region, there is this necessity to solve problems through negotiations."

No dates have been set for the talks, and Iran has yet to name its delegation, which Larijani said would be of a rank "appropriate" to the task. Both Iran and the United States publicly emphasize that the subject will be limited to the teetering situation in Iraq, where both have deep interests and influence.

U.S. officials underscore this adamantly, openly arguing that Iran is opening a channel to the United States in hopes of siphoning off pressure it faces from the U.N. Security Council about the intentions of its nuclear program.

Some Iranian politicians acknowledge as much. "Although the talks will be over Iraq, these talks would have certain impacts on other regional developments and also on nuclear diplomacy," said Reza Talainik, head of parliament's national security and foreign affairs committee, ISNA reported.

Others describe the opening as a first step toward reducing Iran's estrangement from the West. The United States long has labeled Iran the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism. But Tajzadeh said he feared the escalating rhetoric over Iran's nuclear program, which many suspect is a front for acquiring atomic weapons, was building toward military action.

"The public image the U.S. has made of Iran is a monster. They have to do something, at least break a horn," he said. "There is only a small chance. This is negotiation.

"Of course, in the short term," he said, "it would not be in my party's favor. But in the long term, it would be in the favor of the Iranian nation and our party."

Naser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University, said Iranian commentators of all stripes see the new opening as the most significant public approach to Washington since 1979, despite mid-level diplomatic contacts through third parties in advance of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Both the supporters and those who are critical have made this point clear," he said.

The public also appeared to welcome news of talks. "I think both sides should take advantage of this opportunity. They should be friends," said Kobra Mehdipour, 68, clutching her chador against the March wind.

Asked who in Iran might feel otherwise, she said, "There might be some illiterate people in the provinces who want to be friends with other countries but might be under the influence of some kind of propaganda."

Karrubi, the moderate cleric, moved from supporting the 1979 embassy takeover to urging rapprochement with Washington. He said that was the challenge for the governments as well.

"Both sides should forget the rhetoric used in the media and politics. They should put it aside," he said. "They should create something new."

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