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Is Specter heading to Iran? Senator requests a meeting

WASHINGTON, March 22 (JTA) — The delicate dance between Tehran and Washington could take a new turn if U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) gets his way. Specter has asked an Iranian Cabinet minister to take a message back to Iranian President Mohammed Khatami requesting a meeting with members of Congress. Members of Congress “sometimes have the capability to speak in broader terms without binding the U.S. government,” Specter told Zahra Shojaie at a forum last week sponsored by Middle East Insight magazine. “There are many of my colleagues who would be interested in going to Iran and welcoming others from Iran,” said Specter, the Senate’s only Jewish Republican. Specter’s request came after Robert Pelletreau, Clinton’s former top Middle East official at the State Department, pointedly described members of Congress as representatives of the American people, not the government. Such a distinction is important in the diplomatic two-step between Iran and the United States, both of which are not prepared to open an official dialogue. Shojaie agreed to take the message back with her but did not respond directly. Since Khatami, a relative moderate, was elected in 1997, he and Clinton have sought ways to bring to an end 20 years of diplomatic isolation. Shojaie’s visit itself represented a thaw in relations, officials said. Special permission from the Clinton administration was required for her to visit Washington for the meeting. Shojaie, Khatami’s adviser on women’s issues, is in the United States to attend a conference at the United Nations. In what analysts interpreted as another signal from the Clinton administration as it puts together its Iran policy, Chris Stephens, who handles Iran issues at the State Department, and Tom Dine, president of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Iran, attended the briefing.