- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2000

The Clinton administration said yesterday it was too soon to take concrete steps to improve relations with Iran, disappointing reformers who had hoped for a dramatic gesture in the wake of their stunning parliamentary gains last week.
With all indications that hard-liners will lose control of Iran's parliament, the triumphant reformists presented a legislative agenda yesterday with a priority on expanding press freedoms and lifting a ban on foreign television broadcasts.
But it remained to be seen whether hard-liners will find a way to block those initiatives. The conservative Guardians Council can veto all legislation passed by parliament, and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the main backer of the conservative camp, has final say in all matters.
"We would still like to see a change in specific policies of concern," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said yesterday, noting that it will be months before a new Iranian parliament is even seated.
Those policies "relate to Iran's attitude toward the Middle East peace process, the seeking of weapons of mass destruction and the support of terrorism," Mr. Rubin said.
Reformers in Tehran, allies of President Mohammed Khatami, clearly had been hoping for more.
The United States "is still imposing economic sanctions on us and not making any conciliatory gestures," said Mohammed-Reza Khatami, the president's younger brother and the leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest of the pro-reform parties.
"We're waiting for practical steps from the United States, more than nice words," said Mr. Khatami, tipped by many to be speaker in the new Majlis, as the Iranian parliament is known. He said there was a "better tone" in recent relations with Washington "but no practical steps to pull down the wall of mistrust."
Preliminary results yesterday give the Participation Front 109 seats in the new 290-seat parliament from the first round of voting, with at least 28 more pro-reform allies elected outright.
President Khatami's allies also expect to carry another 28 seats when Tehran's votes are finally counted, and say they will capture a majority of the 65 seats up for grabs in the second and final round of voting next month.
Conservative supporters of Iran's Islamic clerical leaders, who dominated the outgoing Majlis, won an estimated 44 seats, with independents winning 10 seats so far.
Conservatives, many tied to Ayatollah Khamenei, conceded defeat but retain control of many institutional levers of power within Iran. They warned against interpreting the Majlis voting as a referendum on better relations with the United States, in deep freeze since the 1979 overthrow of the U.S.-backed shah of Iran.
"The majority of those elected to the next parliament are committed to the Islamic republic," said Majlis member Morteza Nabavi, an outspoken opponent of Mr. Khatami's reform program. "They are not the reformers America thinks they are."
U.S. officials privately said that some kind of public statement or interview by President Clinton focusing on better relations with Iran, an idea first reported by USA Today, may still be arranged, although nothing has been officially announced.
Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iranian politics at the Brookings Institution, said the strong showing by Mohammed-Reza Khatami and other prominent reformers will have a "positive impact" on U.S.-Iranian relations, but she noted that there were limits to what the new Majlis could do.
"What this does is take a subject that has been fairly taboo and enabled a much more wide-ranging debate within the Iranian political scene on relations with the United States," she said.
The reformers say one of their first acts in the new Majlis will be to abolish a ban on television satellite dishes, imposed by conservatives to limit access to Western programming.
But the Brookings analyst said even a reformist-dominated Majlis probably will be unable to take the first step that Mr. Rubin appeared to be seeking to improve bilateral relations with the United States.
A concrete gesture by the Clinton administration, she suggested, could provide the "political cover" reformers need within Iran to push for a thaw in relations.
But while Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has offered a "road map" to better relations, numerous thorny issues still divide the two countries, including U.S. trade sanctions on Iran, billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in the United States, the U.S. designation of Iran as a state supporter of terrorism, and Iran's hostility to U.S. efforts to broker a peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Syrians.
The Iranian election was largely fought over domestic issues, including expanded civil liberties and the country's lagging economy, leaving many foreign-policy issues on the back burner.
"I am not going to speculate on what we might do, especially in light of the fact that there are some weeks before the run-off elections and some weeks after that before the new power arrangements would be developed," Mr. Rubin said.

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