- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2000

TEHRAN Iran's supreme religious leader has quietly approved a diplomatic initiative to contact members of the U.S. Congress with a view to improving relations, a senior Iranian official said yesterday.
"Iran's ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Nejad Hosseinian, was here last month and was given special permission by Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei to start work and negotiate with American deputies of the Senate and Congress," said the official, who declined to be identified.
The disclosure stands in stark contrast to the anti-American slogans being hurled yesterday by Ayatollah Khamenei's supporters protesting outside the parliament, who accuse the United States of being anti-Islamic.
The senior official acknowledged that Ayatollah Khamenei acted this week to prevent debate in parliament of a reformer-backed press bill, and said "he does believe the United States is trying to dominate Iran."
Nevertheless, the official insisted, the supreme leader is more supportive of the reform movement led by President Mohammed Khatami than he is given credit for.
He pointed out that Ayatollah Khamenei forced the Guardian Council an election supervisory body controlled by hard-liners to release the results of February's parliamentary vote after it became apparent the reformers had swept the hard-liners out of power.
Ayatollah Khamenei reads Western and American novels, has smoked a pipe, has worn a wristwatch and listens to the international media, said the official, who enjoys both official and personal links to the leader.
The official said the United States missed a chance for better relations when President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright failed to respond "with respect" to Mr. Khatami's call for closer ties in a CNN interview in January 1998.
He said the Americans came back with a shopping list of negative issues to be addressed in any talks, such as terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and opposition to the Middle East peace process.
At that point, "Ayatollah Khamenei told the government to stop its efforts," the official said. "If the U.S. government offers to hold talks on an open agenda, I think Iran would accept it."
The official welcomed what he called an "important" State Department decision to list the Iraq-based Iranian opposition group Mojahiden Khalq as terrorist and to ban it from raising funds in the United States.
But he dismissed as insulting the U.S. decision earlier this year to ease trade sanctions by permitting the import of Iranian pistachio nuts and carpets.
The official said one objective in any meeting with members of Congress would be to discuss Iran's demand for the return of $400 million it paid for weapons before Iran's 1979 revolution that were never delivered.
The issue has been complicated by a U.S. court, which ruled those assets may be used to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to a family whose daughter died in a bus bombing in Israel attributed to the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hamas.

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