Iran and America: Wrestling with Old Hates

WASHINGTON, D.C. Iranian/American relations, after a generation of hostility, are beginning to thaw. The moves underway are gradual, ranging from regional security to sports, but could result in full rapprochement. Such a reconciliation may, indeed, prevent one of today’s fashionable academic ideas, that of a “clash of civilizations” between the Christian and Moslem worlds, from ever taking place. Iran’s initiatives to America, indeed, indicate that it wants to be part of today’s globalization, not isolated within a brooding Islamic bloc.

Iran formally launched its opening toward America in January. During an interview intended as a direct address to the American people, President Mohammed Khatami, a reformer elected last year, proposed cultural exchanges as a way to “crack the wall of mistrust.” “What we seek,” he continued, “is what the founders of American civilization were also pursuing four centuries ago. This is why we sense an intellectual affinity with the essence of American civilization.” The US quickly responded. President Clinton said that America “regretted estrangement” between the two peoples and said that “real differences” were no longer “insurmountable.”

The pace of this tentative rapprochement has picked up since, both publicly and behind the scenes. A February a trip by American wrestlers Tehran broke the ice. In a country where “Down With the USA” remains plastered on hotel walls, the Americans were cheered even as the defeated Iranians and the American flag unfurled. This spring Iranian wrestlers will visit Oklahoma, and the US and Iran will play football in Lyons, France, come June. That pace, however, seems too fast for President Khatami’s domestic foes, who are working hard to thwart any opening, as the arrest last week of a key Khatami supporter Teheran’s mayor (and his release following street protests by his supporters), suggests.

While sports changed the atmosphere of hate, ongoing diplomatic maneuvers are far more substantive. During this winter’s crisis with Iraq, the Clinton administration sent messages to Khatami’s government to explain the dispatch of additional American ships and military personnel to the Persian Gulf, and to pledge a limited American deployment based on Iraqi behavior. Through the UN and other channels, Washington called on Tehran to close the fastest growing hole in international sanctions on Iraq.