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Behind the Headlines: U.S. Move to Engage Iran Worries Supporters of Israel

Now that the United States is willing to engage Iran — both on and off the soccer field — Israel and its supporters in Washington are determined to ensure that the Clinton administration does not sugarcoat Tehran’s support for terrorists and its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

In a groundbreaking policy speech last week, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright laid out a “road map” to improve relations between Washington and Tehran.

In what the State Department called the most conciliatory policy statement on Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Albright urged Iran to pursue a series of confidence-building measures.

Albright called Iran by its preferred name — the Islamic Republic of Iran – – and praised Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, who she said “publicly denounced terrorism and condemned the killing of innocent Israelis.”

She also praised Iran for saying it would not “impose their views” on the Middle East peace process and would “accept what the Palestinians would accept.”

Despite the apparent rapprochement, America’s top diplomat promised to keep economic sanctions against Iran in place until Iran’s actions match its words.

But the shift from the State Department’s usual language referring to Iran as a “rogue state” spoke volumes about how the Clinton administration hopes to pursue a warming of relations with Iran under Khatami, who is seen as a relative moderate.

State Department officials said the American shift — which included a televised message to the Iranian people from President Clinton broadcast during Sunday’s U.S.-Iran World Cup soccer match — marked the beginning of the end for the policy of dual containment under which Iran and Iraq, both sworn enemies, would keep each other in check.

For Jewish activists, who have fought for legislation that would limit Iran’s ability to obtain weapons of mass destruction, the change in tone prompted some anxiety. The concern is particularly acute because of what activists see as the Clinton administration’s history of trying to fudge objectionable practices in order to further foreign policy goals.

As example, they point to Palestinian non-compliance with signed agreements and human rights abuses in China.

“There need to be clear guideposts and road marks along the way so that one can measure Iran’s policy,” said Jess Hordes, Washington representative of the Anti-Defamation League.

In her speech, Albright held out the hope of improving relations, but said there is a long way to go before the United States would reconsider its economic embargo or re-establish diplomatic relations.

Iran remains subject to a host of U.S. economic sanctions because of its place on the annual State Department list of sponsors of terrorism.

But in a move opposed by Jewish activists and others, President Clinton has waived sanctions against foreign firms that are doing business in Iran’s gas and oil fields. In addition, Clinton was slated to veto a bill this week that requires the president to sanction companies involved in the transfer of missile technology to Iran.

The measure, which passed both the House and Senate by veto-proof margins, would primarily affect Russia.

For its part, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has made the containment of Iran a top agenda item, refused to criticize Albright’s remarks directly.

However, Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, said of Iran: “We must not lose sight that they are the chief sponsors of terrorism today.”

He said AIPAC would continue to fight for legislation that would curtail Iran’s ability to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

In Israel, where intelligence estimates that Iran is less than two years away from developing a missile that could carry a nuclear warhead into Israel, government officials maintained an official silence on the American initiative.

Although Iran remains a sworn enemy of Israel and funds terrorism against Israel, Tehran’s rhetoric has softened somewhat.

Albright’s speech last week came hours after the new Iranian ambassador to the United Nations visited Washington for the first time. The State Department gave Ambassador Hadi Nejad Hosseinian the special permission he needed to travel outside a 15-mile radius of the United Nations to deliver a speech sponsored by the policy magazine Middle East Insight.

While Hosseinian broke no new policy ground, he built on Khatami’s January CNN interview. For example, instead of calling Israel the “Zionist entity,” he twice referred to “Israel,” even as he addressed the issues of “Israel’s nuclear arsenal” and a withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

But in Israel, reaction remains mixed to the U.S. policy.

A senior political source, who insisted on anonymity, said in an interview that Israel had no reason to rejoice.

“One should measure Iran by its deeds and not by its words,” he said, adding that Khatami is not the one who pulls the strings in Iran, it is still the hard-liners.”

The source suggested a series of steps that Iran should have taken before the American initiative, such as the cessation of Iranian supplies to Hezbollah, of Iranian funding of Hamas, of Iranian support of fundamentalist Muslim organizations in 21 countries as well as a declaration that Iran supports the Oslo peace accords.

But leading academic experts said that now that the Americans have embarked on this course, there’s a new reality that Israel cannot ignore.

“Until now, Israel rejected every possible contact” between the United States and Israel,” said David Menashri, head of the department of Middle East studies at Tel Aviv University. Now, he said, “I am not sure that we can oppose the process.”

One of the more optimistic assessments came from reserve Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, the last Israeli military attache to Iran, who served prior to the 1979 revolution. Segev suggested that the changes under way in Iranian society are deep and radical, and are not merely a change of political terminology by Khatami and his followers.

Iran faces economic difficulties, said Segev, particularly in view of the sharp cuts in oil revenues and American efforts to join Iran’s northern neighbors, such as Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, in a Turkish sphere of influence. Many Iranians now realize that the Islamic Revolution did not deliver the goods, and it is therefore time to change the hostile policy toward the Unite States.

“We need to be patient,” said Segev. “Once Iran resumes relations with the Great Satan — the U.S. — it may turn to mend relations with the Little Devil, Israel.”

Therefore, suggested Segev, Israel should not oppose the American-Iranian rapprochement. “At the end of the day, we shall reap the benefits as well,” he said.

(JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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