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Iran, US almost speaking terms again 20 years after rupture

TEHRAN, April 6 (AFP) - Although Iran has been taking one step forward and another back in its dance around dialogue with the United States, the two appear to be drawing closer 20 years after they broke off diplomatic ties.

The two sides ended their diplomatic relationship April 7, 1980, following the seizure of the US embassy and its staff in Tehran in the wake of the revolution that toppled the shah, and the United States was derided as the Great Satan.

Although travellers arriving in Tehran airport are still welcomed with anti-US posters, hostile slogans are rare in the streets of the capital as Iranian society becomes ever more Americanised.

Since the pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997, the United States has been putting out feelers in hopes of a rapprochement. And Khatami, who has limited power over foreign affairs, has responded in a limited fashion.

But with pro-reform candidates winning a landslide in February's parliamentary elections, Washington took a major step toward Iran: an apology for past US sins and the elimination of some sanctions but not the major one -- the embargo on Iranian oil.

On March 17, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted the role the Central Intelligence Agency played in toppling prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, acknowledged repression under the US-backed regime of the shah and lamented Washington had been "regrettably shortsighted" in supporting Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

A European diplomat in Tehran told AFP that both sides were ripe for dialogue. "There is a desire on both sides to have done with it, because the absence of a dialogue is somewhat strange, almost artificial since relations have improved with the European Union."

"The apology on Iraq is the most important," he added.

Iran gave a cautious welcome to Albright's speech, but then insisted that if its US suitor really wanted to win back its affections it must go further in its apology and lift more important sanctions, such as the oil embargo.

But conservatives in the Iranian regime, who have been less than cordial toward the United States, have criticized her speech.

Powerful former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said March 31 without elaborating that her speech was "the worst hostility and could be harmful to those it supports."

He also slammed Albright for saying that Iranian institutions controlled by the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were not democratic.

"They absolutely must apologize to show their good will," Rafsanjani insisted.

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi, who said in January he was ready to negotiate with on an equal footing with Washington, hailed the United States' moves.

But Wednesday he turned around and said Iran might sue the United States.

"Mrs Albright's admissions constitute an acceptance of responsibility, and we are considering legal action," because Washington must "pay reparations for its actions," Kharazi said.

On the eve of the anniversary Iranian newspapers were divided.

The Iran Daily newspaper said Thursday: "American statesmen, by apologizing for their contribution to the 1953 coup d'etat, which toppled the nationalist Mohammad Mossadegh's government and restored monarchy in Iran, have taken a major step forward for rapprochement."

But the conservative Tehran Times, pulling in the opposition direction, said: "Contrary to goodwill gestures, US pressures against Iran mount," such as pressure to block nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Nevertheless, in the past two days, two pieces of news have emerged from Iran that will be music to Washington's ears.

Tuesday conservative Hassan Rowhani, Secretary of Iran's highest security body, the Supreme Security Council, declared that while Iran does not favor the Middle East peace process, it has done nothing to thwart it.

And on Wednesday, the official IRNA news agency said Iran had seized a tanker carrying contraband Iraqi oil, in violation of the UN oil embargo on Iraq of which Washington is a chief backer.

This announcement followed an appeal by Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh to Washington Tuesday to lift its oil embargo against his country.


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