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Khatami's overture disappoints U.S. officials

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei   
January 7, 1998
Web posted at: 10:29 p.m. EST (0329 GMT)

In this story:

From White House Correspondent Wolf Blitzer

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- From President Clinton on down, top U.S. officials were disappointed that Iranian President Mohammed Khatami stopped short of calling for a direct dialogue with the U.S. government.

Instead, Khatami spoke only of opening a dialogue with the American people.

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"Right now, I recommend the exchange of professors, writers, scholars, artists, journalists and tourists," Khatami told CNN's Christiane Amanpour Wednesday in a rare interview.

But that's what the relatively moderate Khatami has been saying for weeks, and his words are at odds with those of Iran's more militant supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

vxtreme CNN's Wolf Blitzer reports.

It is Khamenei who controls Iran's military and foreign policy, and it is Khamenei who opposes extending an olive branch to the United States -- an olive branch President Clinton says he would like to accept.

"Do I hope that there will be some conditions under which this dialogue can resume?" Clinton says. "I certainly do."

While top U.S. intelligence analysts believe Khatami is serious about opening a new chapter in U.S.-Iranian relations, they are concerned about his power struggle with more militant, anti-Western clerics loyal to Khamenei.

Actions, not words

The U.S. is concerned about Iran's military buildup  

And they say they do not believe that Iran has stopped supporting terrorism, stopped developing weapons of mass destruction or stopped undermining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"We will be in a position to judge what is significant based on actions, not words," says State Department spokesman James Rubin. "But words often are the precursor to actions, and so it will be a combination."

Nor can Khatami's soothing words defuse tensions between the U.S. and France, Russia and other allies who, Washington says, are selling high-tech energy and missile-related equipment to Iran. In fact, the White House insists it's ready to jeopardize those alliances by imposing economic sanctions on those who do business with Iran.

"It's worth the cost to stand against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and those who would try to violate the process that might bring peace to the Middle East, of course," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said.

Iran's military buildup -- which includes a long-range ballistic missile system -- is of particular concern.

"They are not as far along on the nuke front," said U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. "I don't know that it is that important when you have chemical or biological weapons that could wipe out hundreds of thousands of people. For example, one missile launch on Israel that could be ... could have devastating consequences."

Iran may need investors

Rubin said that while the United States has concerns it would like to address with Iran in any dialogue, "At the same time, we would expect Iran to raise issues of concern to it."

Some analysts say Iran has good reason to end its two decades of isolation.

"The Iranians themselves are saying they need $90 billion in fresh investment from the outside world to keep from becoming a net oil importer in the next 10 years," said Kenneth Timmerman, publisher of The Iran Brief. "That's really dramatic, and that is what I think has prompted Mr. Khatami to make this overture to the U.S. They need the U.S. now."

White House officials still hope for a high-level, government-to-government dialogue, and they are discouraging private American citizens from engaging in their own contacts with Iran. From the U.S. standpoint, the ball remains in Iran's court.


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