Saturday, February 6, 1999 Published at 18:34 GMT
World: Middle East
Montazeri urges better US ties
President Khatami's moderates want better US ties
By the BBC's Iranian affairs analysit Sadeq Saba
A leading dissident Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Hussain Ali Montazeri, has said that the resumption of ties between Iran and the United States is possible.
In a written response to a query by a group of university and seminary tutors, the ayatollah said the ban on relations imposed by the former Iranian leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, was a temporary measure.
Mr Montazeri has been under house arrest for about two years for challenging the authority of the current supreme Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
A grand ayatollah in the Iranian Shi'ite hierarchy, Mr Montazeri's views usually carry the weight of religious rulings.
The issue has bitterly divided the two main factions in the government.
The moderates led by President Khatami favour better ties and have urged Washington to abandon some of its hostile policies to make it possible.
The conservatives, however, oppose any rapprochement with Washington and usually refer to a ban imposed by the late Ayatollah Khomeini after the Islamic revolution two decades ago.
Ayatollah Montazeri said the ban was not indefinite and could change according to political and economic conditions.
He said if experts at present concluded that such relations were beneficial to Iran, there should be an immediate resumption of ties.
Defying the conservatives
He said relations between the US and Iran should be between two independent countries and not, as he termed it, between a wolf and a lamb.
As a grand ayatollah, with a large following among the Iranian faithful, Ayatollah Montazeri is in a position to interpret the rulings of Ayatollah Khomeini.
His views certainly carry weight and will influence policy makers in the country. But the government is not obliged to implement them.
The remarks will anger the conservatives who may insist that the ayatollah's house arrest should be continued.