By Stephen C. Fairbanks

Over the past few weeks, Iran's ruling clerics have been struggling with the idea of entering into formal negotiations, at long last, with the United States. Proponents argue that the formidable U.S. presence in the neighborhood makes it in Iran's national interests to do so. But regime consensus on the issue does not appear to be close at hand, and the storm of criticism generated by one senior leader's proposal shows that sensitivities over breaking the 23-year taboo on even discussing such ties are not easily overcome.

The controversy erupted after the publication last month of an interview with former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, in which the Expediency Council chairman said his council might consider such a proposal if parliament presented it. He even suggested that a national referendum could be held on the issue. His remarks were startling, considering that Tehran has regularly rejected suggestions of formal meetings or talks ever since relations between the two countries were severed in 1980. Implacable opposition to the United States has been essential to the regime's revolutionary image and a vital justification for keeping the ruling clique in power.

Though Rafsanjani from time to time publicly advocated business ties with the United States during his 1989-97 tenure as Iran's president -- he even stood up to hard-liners by facilitating a favorable oil concession to a U.S. firm -- this public consideration of diplomatic ties is something new. None of Iran's leaders had dared to depart from the legacy of Islamic revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who maintained that the United States and Iran were a "wolf and a lamb" that could never meet unless the United States changed its "bullying" ways. And Rafsanjani even expressed regret over Iran's having lost opportunities for talks, "acting too late or badly -- or doing nothing," an apparent reference to Iran's failure to reciprocate the conciliatory gestures made in the final years of former U.S. President Bill Clinton's tenure.

Rafsanjani's long-established reputation as a skilled consensus builder and pragmatic politician means that the open-mindedness he expressed regarding relations probably reflected the thoughts of other top leaders, even if it was not politically possible for them to express such ideas. None came out to back him on the issue, but neither did any of them openly dispute him. Rafsanjani himself, probably to deflect criticism, a few days later gave a harsh critique of U.S. actions in Iraq, saying the United States is even worse than deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, although he did not mention the proposal for negotiations.

When Rafsanjani's interview was published on 12 April, many in the West greeted it as a sign that Tehran was changing its tune in response to the United States' dramatic military advances in Iraq. But, in fact, the interview appears to have taken place as early as 3 February, when the war in Iraq was still not a certainty. Although he almost certainly calculated then that a war was inevitable and that it would have serious implications for Iran, it appears unlikely that he made his remarks because he was intimidated by the United States.

The publication's timing served to scuttle, if only for the time being, Tehran's revisiting the issue of relations. Critics from both the reformist and conservative camps argued that Tehran would be in an exceptionally weak bargaining position if it suddenly proposed talks just when the United States was at its victorious height. "Wouldn't such negotiations lead to strategic concessions that would be required from our country," the reformist Tehran newspaper "Mardom Salari" asked on 19 April.

Predictably, some reformists blame earlier "missed opportunities" on hard-line conservatives who had blocked President Mohammad Khatami's goal of detente with the United States. But most reformists could not embrace Rafsanjani's proposal, likely believing that doing so would only confirm conservatives' characterization of them as being on the United States' payroll. Then again, his vilification by reformist newspapers during the 2000 parliamentary elections, which resulted in his embarrassingly low showing at the polls, makes it awkward for reformists to side with him now.

Factional rivalry repeatedly raises its head over the issue of U.S.-Iranian relations. Reformists do not want Rafsanjani and his conservative allies to take credit for, and reap the benefits of, a breakthrough with the United States, just as the conservatives always did all they could to prevent President Khatami from thawing relations with Washington. And there are institutional rivalries, too: The reformists argue that it should be the government (read, Khatami) or the parliament (dominated by reformists) that should decide the issue. Constitutionally, they argue, the issue is beyond the jurisdiction of Rafsanjani's conservative-dominated Expediency Council (literally, the "Council for Determining the Best Interests of the System").

Members of both factions reject Rafsanjani's proposal for a nationwide referendum on the grounds that a democratic settlement of such a crucial issue would undermine the regime's authority. Reformists had advocated such a referendum for the past few years, but now many of them fear that if it were held at Rafsanjani's wish it would be a public-relations boon for the conservatives, who would appear to be more in line with the people's wishes.

If a consensus is reached on this crucial issue, and assuming that Washington is amenable to talks at this juncture, it would have to be Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who gives the go-ahead, representing as he does (or should) all the major factions, just as only Ayatollah Khomeini had the authority to accept a cease-fire with Iraq in 1988. But Khamenei so far has shown no inclination publicly to change Iran's policy on the United States.

The two sides have too much to talk about to remain estranged much longer. Washington's plans for postwar Iraq (including, most recently, its truce with the Iranian opposition Mujahedin Khalq Organization) are the latest of pressing issues that call for direct talks between Washington and Tehran. U.S. economic sanctions on Iran, U.S. intentions toward Persian Gulf and Central Asian security, and Iran's nuclear ambitions are also high on the long list of issues that need direct, bilateral discussion.

Copyright (c) 2003. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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