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NEWS ANALYSIS Iran appears open to mending foreign ties — but not with Israel

JERUSALEM, Dec. 15 (JTA) — Iran appears eager to mend fences with other countries — but Israel, for the time being, is not among them. Hosting a conference of Islamic nations last week, Tehran signaled that it wanted to improve relations with several Arab countries in an effort to overcome years of hostility that date back in some cases to Iran”s 1979 Islamic Revolution. On Sunday, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami announced at a news conference that he hoped to re-establish dialogue with the American people. Since his election in May, Khatami has been viewed as more of a moderate than his predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, particularly in the domestic arena. But Iran-watchers have wondered whether his moderation would extend to foreign affairs. Also subject to doubt was whether he would emerge victorious in the internal debates raging among Iranian leaders — a debate that pits Khatami against Rafsanjani and the country”s supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At his news conference, Khatami expressed “great respect”” for the “great people of the United States,”” and abandoned the hot rhetoric previous leaders directed at the American government. By contrast, at last week”s Islamic summit, Khamenei lambasted the United States, Israel and Western civilization in general, where, he said, “Money, glutton and carnal desires are made the greatest aspiration.”” It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the West is hesitant to draw conclusions too quickly about where Tehran is headed. The U.S. State Department reacted cautiously to Khatami”s news conference, saying that Washington remains “open to a dialogue”” with Tehran. But it categorically denied reports that the United States was engaged in any clandestine talks with Iran. In Israel, as in Washington, Khatami”s statements drew reserved applause. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would always welcome any signs of moderation in Iran, but it was too early to tell whether there was indeed such a change. Netanyahu said that Iran must still be regarded with caution because it continued to arm itself with weapons of mass destruction and to support Middle East terrorism. But some Iranian experts are more sanguine. “This is a genuine attempt by the Iranian president to create a new, more positive image of Islam,”” Menashe Amir, head of Persian- language broadcasts on Voice of Israel Radio, said in an interview. According to Amir, Khatami believes in an intercultural dialogue with the West that would allow Iran to break out of its international solitude. But Amir cautioned that it was premature to believe that Iran”s revolution was dying. It may undergo a process of moderation, some of the leadership may change, but one should not underestimate the power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, he said. In fact, Amir warned, Iran may use improved relations with the West to strengthen itself militarily — a process that should be viewed by Israel with great concern. Uzi Landau, the hawkish chairman of the Knesset”s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, shares that view. “We have no indication whatsoever that the Iranians even think”” of improving relations with Israel, Landau said. While he believes that Israel should maintain an official policy of encouraging moderates in Iran, he nonetheless believes that Israel should constantly be on the lookout, since Tehran has not yet adopted any concrete moderate policies. If there is a change in Tehran, Landau added, it has not yet reached Israel. Indeed, at last week”s summit, the traditional anti-Israel stance prevailed. Moreover, Iran, which served as the summit”s host, sought a strongly worded resolution against Israel and the peace process. As it turned out, the communique issued at the end of the triennial meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference was moderated by some of the attendees, some of whom were unhappy with the harsh text prepared by Iran. Just the same, the final declaration condemned Israel for practicing “state terrorism”” and called for the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. It also condemned terrorism, but supported the “struggles of people”” against “alien domination”” — which mirrored Iran”s support of Hezbollah and Hamas in their fight against the Jewish state. Summit members were also critical of Turkey, calling for a suspension of its expanding security ties with Israel — illustrated by last week”s visit of Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai to Turkey. In a sign of a growing breach with other Muslim countries, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel walked out of the conference to protest what a Turkish official called “attempts to force Turkey to end its political and military cooperation with Israel.”” Tehran used the summit to boast that it was winning broad acceptance from the Islamic world. And indeed, every member of the 55-nation organization came to Tehran. But the level of attendance was another story: Only six of the 22 Arab states belonging to the conference were represented by heads of state. Among those countries sending lower-level delegates were Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, all of which are key Arab allies of the United States. Despite Tehran”s pronouncements, the time had not yet come for its total rehabilitation among its Arab neighbors. Just the same, there are those who believe that a sea change is taking place in Iran. At a recent international congress held in Florence, Italy, a panel of Middle East experts suggested that Iran has already taken steps to put portions of the Islamic Revolution behind it. Professor Bassem Tibi, a Syrian expert who lectures at Gottingen University in Germany, went a step further: Not only is the Iranian revolution slowly dying, but the message of Islamic zealots has not been accepted by wide segments of Islamic society in the Middle East. Professor Shireen Hunter, an Iranian working at the Center for the Studies of International Policies in Brussels, spoke of the power struggle between Khatami and the old guard headed by Rafsanjani and Khamenei. Hunter suggested two possible outcomes to the struggle: a gradual liberalization of Iran under a tacit agreement between the old guard and the Khatami leadership — or a civil war in which the army would wipe out the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and seek to institute secular rule. Meanwhile, there were indications that Israel may be attempting to revive a dialogue with Iran. According to a recent story in Al-Kayhan, a Persian-language newspaper published in London, Israel has offered to open negotiations with Iran over a debt stemming from a pipeline they jointly owned prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian-Israeli ties were severed after the revolution and Israel withheld some $650 million it owed Iran. The debt has since swollen to $1 billion, according to Israel; to $8 billion, according to the Iranians. The report has not been confirmed in Israel, but according to Al-Kayhan it was none other than Ariel Sharon, the hawkish national infrastructure minister, who was behind attempts to reopen negotiations over the debt. Landau reacted to the report with caution. “If it”s a matter of settling financial accounts, than why not — as long as we take into account the debts Iran owes Israeli businessmen and all the damages it had caused Israel since the revolution.”” Even this comment from the hawkish Likud Knesset member says something. It means that Jerusalem, too, is attune to possible new winds blowing from Tehran — even if it is still premature to talk of a new Middle East.

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