- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

U.S. officials confirmed yesterday they are considering easing sanctions on some high-profile Iranian exports, the first concrete gesture to Tehran since reformers swept to power in Iran's parliamentary vote last month.

The move, which would affect longstanding bans on Iranian exports of carpets, caviar and pistachio nuts, has been floated despite continuing deep U.S. concerns about Iran's military buildup and support of Middle East terrorist groups hostile to Israel.

The Clinton administration and the reformist government of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami have eyed each other warily since Mr. Khatami's allies ousted the anti-U.S. conservative majority in parliamentary elections Feb. 18, with each government inviting the other to make the first step in improving a relationship largely frozen since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

"We are looking to have a constructive dialogue with Iran that encompasses all issues, including terrorism," White House spokesman Michael Hammer said yesterday.

"It may still be a little early in terms of the ongoing electoral process there, but Iran is very aware of our position, and we continue to look to Tehran to see if we can engage in a constructive dialogue," he said.

But privately, administration officials said there was serious consideration of going beyond the offer to talk, taking the small but symbolic step of lifting sanctions on select Iranian exports. After oil and gas, textiles such as carpets and pistachio nuts are Iran's two most lucrative exports.

The possibility of a new gesture to Iran was first reported in yesterday's Los Angeles Times.

Azar Nafisi, an Iranian-born resident scholar at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, said the still-raging power struggle debate between reformers and Islamic conservatives made it unlikely Iran would make the first move in improving ties with Washington.

"The stance against the United States was a fundamental part of the original revolution," she said. "It's hard for even the reformists to tackle that question first without the whole house coming down."

The U.S. government last year eased a ban on U.S. farm sales to Iran, but the move was dismissed in Tehran as a gesture more to American farmers. Easing sanctions on one or more of Iran's major exports would have more of an impact, analysts said.

Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iranian politics at the Brookings Institution, said the "dialogue of the deaf" between Tehran and Washington over the past two decades has prevented any talks on Iranian sponsorship of terrorists and other issues.

Agreeing to buy Iranian nuts may be a necessary first step to dealing with Iranian missiles, she said.

"There's a low political cost and it puts the ball in Tehran's court," she said. "The only way you're going to get to the big items on the agenda is if you get a dialogue going in the first place."

Mr. Khatami's government has been reaching out to the West in recent years. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer yesterday concluded the first visit by a top German official to Tehran since 1992, pledging to revive what had once been a thriving commercial relationship.

"The Iranian side signaled that problems belong to the past and they are ready for a new beginning," Mr. Fischer said upon his return yesterday to Berlin.

But the still-potent ill will from the 1979 revolution and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran makes U.S.-Iranian relations particularly complex.

Iran's support for radical Islamist groups in southern Lebanon and throughout the Middle East has not moderated despite the reformists' recent political victories. Iran's hard-liners remain entrenched in the country's military and security agencies.

Iran has also emerged as a leading hawk in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries oil cartel, pushing for even tighter supply controls as U.S. and European prices at the gas pump soar.

And Congress expressed its deep skepticism about Iran's weapons program with overwhelming votes last week imposing new sanctions on Russia and other countries suspected of aiding Tehran's nuclear and biological weapons programs.

Administration officials argue that the contemplated easing in pistachio, caviar and carpet sales would have major symbolic impact without bringing in enough money to significantly aid Iran's military budget.

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