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  •   U.S. Proposed Direct Talks With Iran

    By Barton Gellman
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 9, 1998; Page A01

    The Clinton administration recently proposed direct, face-to-face talks to the government of Iran, conveying the overture in writing by way of a sensitive diplomatic channel reserved previously for pointed warnings and threats, according to knowledgeable officials.

    The proposal, delivered by Swiss Ambassador Rudolf Weiersmueller to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, followed reformer Mohammed Khatemi's inauguration as Iranian president in August. Officials said it was the first such authorized overture to Iran's ruling clerics and represented American hopes that Iran might be ripe for an opening after 18 years of enmity and proxy war.

    No details were available last night of the precise date or contents of the American letter, directed formally to the Islamic Republic of Iran from the United States of America, and officials familiar with the transaction declined to disclose anything about a private Iranian reply, if any. But officials described Khatemi's televised call Wednesday evening for dialogue as a kind of public answer, far more detailed than anything conveyed secretly and highly encouraging to President Clinton's foreign policy team.

    State Department spokesman James P. Rubin, who was chosen to deliver most of the administration's public reaction yesterday, said that Clinton and his top advisers "appreciated the spirit" of the 45-minute interview with Cable News Network and then called attention to what U.S. analysts identified privately as the most promising line in the Iranian president's remarks.

    "We also noted the president's comments that the conduct of relations between nations must be based on mutual respect and dignity," Rubin said. "We agree."

    That apparently bland observation referred to Khatemi's only direct reference to negotiations with the U.S. government during an interview replete with references to "thoughtful dialogue" with "the great people of the United States."

    "There is a grave mistrust between us," Khatemi said Wednesday. "If negotiations are not based on mutual respect, they will never lead to positive results."

    Though couched in the negative, that comment was seen in the administration as a strongly hopeful sign. Top advisers on Middle East policy dismissed reports that the administration was disappointed in Khatemi's remarks, citing attacks on him yesterday by the conservative Iran News and Kayhan newspapers as evidence that Khatemi had extended as strong an overture as he dared.

    "When he says he regrets the hostage taking and talks about America as a great civilization, and these things get criticized in Iran, it is an indication to us that he is interested in breaking down this distrust, finding a way to engage with us," a senior foreign policy official said.

    Rubin, after taking mild exception to some of Khatemi's sharper attacks on U.S. government policies and on Israel, said: "We will look closely and take a serious look at what President Khatemi has said regarding people-to-people exchanges and the people-to-people dialogue. However, we believe the best way to address our bilateral differences would be to engage in a government-to-government dialogue."

    There have been limited diplomatic contacts before with post-revolutionary Iran, direct and indirect. Iranian officials sit with Americans, represented on occasion by Assistant Secretary of State Karl F. Inderfurth, on a United Nations panel monitoring a cease-fire in Afghanistan. The two nations also have reached modest accords on compensation for the downing of an Iranian airliner by the cruiser USS Vincennes in 1988, which killed 290 civilians, and on some aspects of their financial dispute before the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

    Senior Middle East analysts and policymakers said, however, that the United States had not previously sought negotiations on the full range of issues dividing Washington and Tehran. It tapped Weiersmueller, a 58-year-old career diplomat, for the mission because Switzerland is the "protecting power" for American interests in Iran. The United States severed relations after government-backed student radicals stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, holding 52 hostages for 444 days.

    Weiersmueller, who has been ambassador in Tehran since 1993, makes annual trips to Washington for face-to-face consultations on his intermediary role. The last such trip was in April, when he met acting Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch and other officials.

    "The Swiss do things in a very correct, objective, no body-language fashion," said a former senior official involved in relations with Iran.

    "We used the protecting power channel only rarely, when we thought there was a matter of such importance that something needed to be said to the Iranians about it, and usually the tone was very tough and uncompromising," the official said, adding the subjects were generally specific Iranian threats to American interests. As for the Iranian replies, the official said, "Let's just say they didn't show much daylight."

    Elected in May, Khatemi was widely seen as a domestic reformer, but was not expected to move quickly toward dialogue with the United States. In a Dec. 14 Tehran news conference, described as "an important initiative" by a top U.S. policymaker, he first signaled his intentions to "the great American people."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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