Thomas Pickering can be very accommodating. When he was toasting Ahmed Maher Sayed, the departing Egyptian ambassador, Wednesday in the State Department's Treaty Room, Pickering gave him carte blanche to sum up his performance in Washington. "If it helps, you can tell your government you were feisty, difficult, abrasive . . . relentless and persuasive, and if it helps, you can say you were nice, congenial . . . and diplomatic," said Pickering, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.

With a straight face, Sayed thanked his host Martin S. Indyk, assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, as well as Pickering for the niceties and pointed out that Pickering had left out one trademark attribute. "You forget how paranoid I can become. When I saw the weather this afternoon, I thought to myself: 'This is another American plot.' But it failed because so many friends decided to come--some to say goodbye and others to make sure I was leaving." Sayed's quip referred not only to the torrential rains that pummeled the city that day, but to the perceived tendency of Middle Easterners to cast anything running against their wishes in conspiratorial terms.

When the Egyptian ambassador arrived in Washington seven years ago, Pickering was retiring and State's special Middle East coordinator, Dennis Ross, was leaving. "You are all still here, and now I'm retiring," said Sayed, who turns 64 next week. He thanked Indyk for wonderful memories of a deep friendship and mostly for helping him get a leg up on other ambassadors by allowing him to dance with Indyk's future boss at a party. Sayed can brag back home that he was the first Arab ambassador to dance arm in arm with the U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine K. Albright.

Setting Sun

Japanese Ambassador Kunihiko Saito feels lucky on many counts for his three years and nine months here: the absence of major divisive issues between Tokyo and Washington during that time, the hospitality of American friends, the opportunity to host countless dinners and receptions introducing Japanese culture to Americans, playing on tennis courts in the backyard of his Nebraska Avenue residence and golfing three times a month. There is one more: "Fortunately, no one has asked me to spell the word chrysanthemum," he confided jokingly in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

One of his favorite jokes in the five speeches he has to come up with every cherry blossom season is how a good diplomat, asked about his favorite flower--and how to spell it--would alter his choice from chrysanthemum to rose. Another is: Imagine what Washington would look like if it were covered with cactus from Mexico or bamboo clumps from China.

Japan and the United States share several common issues of concern, he said, such as how things unfold in Iran, or human rights and a military buildup in China, even if the means for achieving the same goals differ. Last week, Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura visited Tehran and this week the Japanese Foreign Ministry's director general for Middle East and African affairs, Kishichiro Amae, briefed American officials on the trip. Komura conveyed to top Iranian leaders his country's concern about Iran's alleged association with terrorists, its opposition to the Middle East peace process and reports on its development of weapons of mass destruction. "We should help those people who are trying to rationalize that country, particularly [President Mohammed] Khatemi. My country believes that Iran is too big to be isolated or contained, and we believe that by cooperating with Mr. Khatemi, we will be able to make Iran a more moderate and responsible country. We all want to see Iran become normally integrated in the international community, but our means differ," said Saito, who has served as ambassador to Tehran.

Amae carried back a message saying Tehran wanted to improve ties with the United States, but expected Washington to "make meaningful moves," a probable reference to a standing wish to have Iranian assets unfrozen in the United States.

Saito said he has been touched and impressed by the many American families who adopt children of Asian origin, even though they have children of their own. "This shows a generosity of spirit and the broad-mindedness of American people," he said.

"I can't think of any better leader. . . . Suppose another country were the leader of the world. It would be a much more difficult place to live in."

One thing he has learned here is the determination of Americans to work for their society and community, no matter how old they get: "People of all ages try to be actively part of social activities and charities. That keeps them young and preserves their vitality. I should be very happy if I can do so in Japan."

Saito leaves at the end of September.