Khatami Opens Door to US a Bit; Response Cautious

WASHINGTON (Reuters)–Nearly 20 years after the hostage-taking of 52 Americans in Tehran–Washington responded cautiously to a call by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami for a dialogue between Americans and Iranians.

The US State Department issued a statement saying Khatami’s historic address to the American people did not go far enough and pressed for direct talks between the two governmen’s.

Lawmakers urged caution and said they would be loathe to lift sanctions on the Islamic regime until Iran demonstrated its good will toward the United States.

The Iranian resistance warned that Khatami’s words–delivered in a 45-minute interview with CNN–signaled "an escalating crisis" between his own moderate views and the fundamentalistic clerics who have led Iran’since 1979.

"The situation is reminiscent of the last stages of the Shah’s dictatorship," said Mohammed Mohadession–foreign affairs chief of the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Khatami’s well-prepared remarks–referencing historic figures in US history and drawing parallels between US and Iranian views on religion and freedom–raised many questions that remained unanswered.

But the general tenor of Khatami’s remarks stood in stark contrast to Tehran’s previous characterization of Washington as "the Great Satan."

The United States–spurred no doubt by Iran’s huge oil reserves and strategic location–has signaled its hopes for a dialogue with Tehran after the election of Khatami–a moderate Shi’ite Muslim cleric–last May.

But its response on Wednesday included an unambiguous call for direct diplomatic talks–the first since Iranian militants overthrew Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

Of course–a state visit by Khatami to the White House is still a long way off–although the latest twist in the US-Iranian saga appears to be an important step in the direction of reestablishing diplomatic ties.

The United States in 1980 cut diplomatic relations with Iran and froze Iranian assets.

"We welcome the fact that he wants a dialogue with the American people…but we continue to believe that the way to address the issues between us is for our two governmen’s to talk directly," said State Department spokesman James Rubin.

Khatami urged dialogue between Americans and Iranians after two decades of hostility and called for a "crack in the wall of mistrust" between the two states–although he said it was too soon for formal ties with Washington.

He renounced terrorism–albeit declaring that a struggle by people involved in liberation struggles did not constitute terrorism–and came close to apologizing for the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by Iranian militants in 1979.

The White House issued no official reaction–although President Bill Clinton had been slated to tune in.

Rubin stressed that ultimately improvement in US-Iranian relations would "depend not upon what the government of Iran’says but what it does."

Washington has said it would be interested in a dialogue with Iran–provided Tehran was ready to discuss its alleged support for terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction–and its opposition to Middle East peace moves.

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