Iran Shows New Willingness to Deal with US ; Progress on Nuclear Issues and Negotiations on Al Qaeda Members May Signal a Major Thaw in Relations

Article excerpt

It may not be the fall of the Berlin Wall. Still, a significant change is afoot. The decades-long gap between the super Islamic Republic of Iran and superpower US may finally be narrowing.

Iran's decision to bare its nuclear activities for international inspectors - and its attendance at the Iraq donors' meeting in Madrid this week - may signal its willingness to deal more openly with the US.

That, experts and government officials say, is extremely important. Iran has something the US desperately wants, beyond Iran's compliance on the nuclear front: Several high-level Al Qaeda members are in Iran. The US and some of its allies have been quietly negotiating behind the scenes for their release. But so far, Iran has not been willing to give them up.

"With the Iranians having worked through the nuclear issue, the temperature may drop sufficiently to where this issue can become resolvable," says Adel al-Jubeir, foreign-affairs adviser to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah.

It's not clear if talks will take place between the Iranian delegation to Madrid and US officials, or if Iran will make a contribution toward rebuilding Iraq. But Iran Thursday followed through on its agreement with Germany, France, and Britain by delivering documents on the creation of its nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Auspicious moment

Experts say the time for repairing the relationship has not been better in decades. "The Iranians may be signaling a willingness to put everything on the table," says Judith Yaphe, an expert on the Middle East at the National Defense University in Washington. "Everything is negotiable."

The US and Iran haven't exactly been on friendly terms since the 1979 Islamic revolution, when 52 Americans were taken hostage inside the US Embassy in Tehran and held for 444 days. But talks and exchanges at various levels have occurred over the past few years, as a reform movement in Iran has gained momentum.

Still, President Bush labeled Iran a member of the "axis of evil" in his January 2002 State of the Union address. And after last May's terrorist attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the US broke off talks with Iran on all levels. US officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, accused Iran of harboring Al Qaeda members who were participants in those attacks.

"There's no question that there are Al Qaeda in Iran," Mr. Rumsfeld said at a May 20 Pentagon briefing. "Countries that are harboring those terrorist networks and providing a haven for them are behaving as terrorists by so doing."

Iranian officials, for their part, hedge about an Al Qaeda presence. …


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