Sunday, June 12, 2005

Wired News | Even Rafsanjani will struggle to end U.S.-Iran feud

Wired News | Even Rafsanjani will struggle to end U.S.-Iran feud: "Even Rafsanjani will struggle to end U.S.-Iran feud

Saturday, June 11, 2005 9:03 p.m. ET
By Christian Oliver

TEHRAN (Reuters) - In 1974 an Iranian cleric made a road trip across the United States, stopping to marvel at giant redwood trees or peer through the gates of Hollywood villas.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani later wrote in his memoirs that he was revolted by the loose morals of Americans, but that there was much Iran could learn from their political freedoms.

Thirty one years later, if anyone is going to dare take up the challenge of restoring diplomatic ties with Washington, severed in 1980, it is likely to be the wily, well-traveled Rafsanjani, tipped to win the June 17 presidential election.

There are votes in courting the "Great Satan."

"The worst thing this regime ever did was to allow our ties with the United States to vanish," said Abbas, a history teacher in Tehran. "We feel left out in the cold, like children who have not been invited to a party."

Other presidential candidates like Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Mohsen Rezaie, former commanders in the hardline Revolutionary Guards, are also saying the era of half-hearted detente with the West must end. A real thaw is needed.

But can any of them produce the masterful diplomacy needed to win Uncle Sam's favor?

Washington severed ties in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution, when radical students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Branded part of the "axis of evil," Iran is under U.S. trade sanctions, accused of seeking nuclear arms and of funding armed anti-Israeli groups. Tehran denies the charges.

Washington blames Iran for the 1996 "Khobar Towers" bomb attack in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen.

PERSISTENCE

Rafsanjani has a long track record in dealing with the United States.

During the 1980s he was a key middleman in the "Iran Contra" scandal, when Washington secretly sold arms to Iran, then at war with Iraq, in return for Tehran's help in securing the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon.

Rafsanjani tried to break the ice in 1995, offering U.S. oil firm Conoco a $1 billion natural gas deal. President Bill Clinton rebuffed him.

Columbia University's Gary Sick, a White House Iran aide during the hostage crisis, said Rafsanjani's persistence in seeking a rapprochement with Washington was significant.

"In Iran Contra, the U.S. did not pay back its side of the bargain and the Conoco offer to develop offshore gas blew up in his face," he told Reuters.

"He has had nothing but bad experiences but he keeps trying. This is something he clearly believes in.

"He is a businessman first and foremost and genuinely believes the way to rapprochement is through the pocket and making offers.

"However the U.S.-Iran problem is bigger than that. It is primarily ideological and cannot be solved by appealing to greed," Sick said, adding there was a vocal camp in the U.S. Congress that has vowed never to speak to Iran.

LITTLE U.S. APPETITE FOR THAW

Rafsanjani has said the United States must take the first step by freeing up billions of dollars of Iranian assets frozen in U.S. accounts after the revolution.

But diplomats and analysts say Washington is unlikely to be the first to move. Its focus remains on insisting that Iran stop making nuclear fuel.

"Iran would not give this up unless the political rewards were huge. Only the U.S. can deliver such rewards and it does not see any reason why it should do so," said Rosemary Hollis of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

U.S. oil majors are showing little interest in the world's second largest oil reserves. Iran's oil contract terms have proved disappointing to the European oil firms working there.

U.S. ally Israel is at the heart of the problem, as a likely target of any nuclear weapon Iran might build.

"Perhaps the problem is not nuclear weapons per se but the security of Israel. Iran could help by clearly accepting a two-state solution," said one Tehran-based diplomat.

But Sick did not see Iran ending its hostility to Israel.

"This was so much part of the revolution," he said.

The vitriolic public rhetoric of the last quarter-century seems destined to continue for now.

The U.S. embassy still stands, albeit remodeled as the "nest of spies" and painted with ghoulish, skull-faced Statues of Liberty.

It does have a nice central location, if the Americans ever decide to come back."