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Monday, December 15, 1997 Published at 22:59 GMT

World: Analysis

President Khatami suggests more dialogue
image: [ Mr Khatami praised many positive aspects of the West ]
Mr Khatami praised many positive aspects of the West

President Khatami of Iran has followed up his statements at the meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Tehran with a further suggestion of a dialogue with the American people. His comments have already aroused considerable interest in the world at large. Professor Fred Halliday, of London University, assesses the impact of his remarks on the world arena:

It is, to say the least, a breath of fresh air. President Khatami spoke of dialogue, of dialogue within Iran based on the rule of law and the growth of civil society, of dialogue between Muslims, dialogue between Iran and the Arab world, dialogue between civilisations.

He did not say that all problems would disappear with this dialogue. It may, however, be possible to discuss them in a reasonable way, to avoid unnecessary demagogy, and for both sides simply to listen.

In practice what could this mean? It could mean, in the first place, that Iran discusses foreign policy differences with other states in a direct way.

Iran can already do this with the Arab world, as the presence of Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the OIC conference indicated.

It can do so with western Europe, now that that region's ambassadors have returned to Iran. But it could now also be possible to do so with the USA as well. There are voices in both Tehran and Washington willing to promote such a dialogue.

And there is a lot to discuss - security and the arms race in the Persian Gulf; Iraq; the Caspian; Afghanistan; the Arab-Israeli peace process.

In none of these areas are there insurmountable differences between Washington and Tehran. In the case of Afghanistan a direct diplomatic dialogue has already begun, because the two states have common interests.

It will not help, however, if the obstacles to such a normalisation are understated. Everyone knows it will take time. It took eight years, from 1971 to 1979, for Washington to complete the normalisation of its relations with China.

As in that case, both sides have within them political forces that are against normalisation. Neither Clinton nor Khatami will find it easy to overcome these forces. Part of the normalisation process will indeed be one of learning. The USA will have to learn and understand the diversity of opinion in Iran; Iran will have to do the same about the USA.

No-one will run for election to the US Congress or any other office in 1998 saying: "I love Iran."

There is also the matter of history and, what is always important in international relations, feeling. President Khatami spoke of his respect for the American people, but the American people feel insulted by the episode of the US hostages. On their side, the Iranian people resent the US history of interference in Iran - not least the CIA's role in overthrowing the elected prime minister, Dr Mosadeq, in 1953.

We are, therefore, at the beginning of a process. President Khatami has made a courageous, and dignified, statement. The rest will depend on political negotiation and good sense, in both Tehran and Washington.

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