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US-Iran relations: After 20-year enmity, light at end of tunnel?
The Middle East / December 2001

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON -- No Iranian flag flutters defiantly in the wind, and no security officer guards its front door. At first glance, there's little to indicate that this nondescript street-level entrance at 2209 Wisconsin Avenue -- next to a shop that sells Persian rugs -- is anything other than a real-estate office or a travel agency.

Step inside, however, and you quickly realize that the Iranian Interests Section isn't your typical Washington diplomatic mission. For starters, not one of the 45 bureaucrats who work in rented office are diplomats -- not even the director, Fariborz Jahansoozan.

"Our staff does not have diplomatic immunity, because the State Department does not allow us to have diplomats in the United States," says Jahansoozan, whose walls are decorated with verses from the Koran and a framed portrait of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. "For all practical purposes, the only difference between myself and an ambassador is that an ambassador would have direct contact with U.S. government officials, which I don't have. We must go through our protecting power, Pakistan."

The Iranian Interests Section, technically an annex of the Pakistani Embassy, keeps such a low profile that until now, Jahansoozan has never spoken with the media. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he's turned down numerous requests to be interviewed by major news outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN.

In mid-October, however, Jahansoozan made an exception for us. In an exclusive, two-hour interview, the 51-year-old official -- now winding up a three-year stint as director of the mission -- shared his views on U.S. military strikes against Afghanistan, the Middle East peace process, Islam and, of course, the still-bitter relationship between the United States and Iran, a nation of 66 million people and the world's fourth-largest oil producer.

"We have not had formal relations with the U.S. since 1980," said Jahansoozan, who was intensely following a satellite TV broadcast of an Iran-Iraq soccer match, live from Tehran, when we arrived. "Our purpose here is mainly to provide consular services for Iranians residing in the United States, as well as non-Iranians who would like to go to Iran. We have exactly the same status here as the Cuban Interests Section. The only difference is that the Cubans have their own office, which used to be the Cuban Embassy before their revolution. We don't have our own office, because the State Department has kept our embassy, and likewise, the Iranian government has the U.S. Embassy in Tehran."

That delicate arrangement is a legacy of the 444-day hostage crisis that plagued most of the Carter administration and finally ended Jan. 20, 1981, the day of President Reagan's inauguration. Under an accord signed in Algiers, the United States -- having severed ties with the Khomeini regime -- named Switzerland to represent its interests in Iran, while the Iranians chose the Algerian Embassy in Washington to be their protecting power here.

But then in 1989, Iran and Algeria broke off diplomatic relations, "and we had to choose another country to represent us in the United States," said Jahansoozan. "We discussed this matter with the Pakistanis, and they accepted."

Jahansoozan, who was already studying in the United States when student revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, grabbing 52 hostages, says that takeover was "completely justified," given Washington's longtime support of the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi.

"The hostage-taking was the result of 50 years of oppression against the Iranian people," he said. "We asked the Shah to be returned to Iran because of his crimes, but the U.S. accepted the Shah into this country. At the time, the American Embassy was spying on Iran, and trying to destroy the Iranian revolution. Iranians were very angry at the actions of the American government, and that was the only way they could justify their anger."

To this day, the State Department remains in possession of the old Iranian Embassy at 3500 Massachusetts Avenue. Through the years, it's been rented to the Turkish government and has been used for issuing diplomatic license plates; it's now a frequent venue for official diplomatic gatherings.

"We cannot occupy our embassy," complains Jahansoozan (whose car, by the way, bears Pakistani Embassy plates). "After the Algerian accord, all the frozen Iranian assets should have been released, and our embassy was supposed to be returned to us, but apparently the Americans have breached that accord, and that's why we still have litigation in The Hague."

Jahansoozan, born and raised in Tehran, speaks English fluently. The father of four sons, aged 11 through 21, he has a master's degree in science education, and has done work towards a Ph.D. in educational psychology at Kansas State University. Unlike his counterparts at the Cuban Interests Section, he has absolutely no restrictions on traveling, and he enjoys dining at local restaurants, especially Persian ones.

Yet resentments against the U.S. government linger.

"In the past 20 years, I haven't seen any change in American policy toward Iran," he said. "The U.S. has been very hostile towards us, and has done its best to suppress our revolution. They proved their hostility in 1989 by shooting down an Iranian passenger plane in the Persian Gulf. When the captain came to the U.S., they even praised him for his actions. Also, they have imposed sanctions against Iran of one kind or another. They have limited our economic relations with other countries, especially in exploration of oil and gas."

Washington's misguided support of Saddam Hussein during Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran, which claimed over a million lives on both sides, certainly didn't help things.

"The whole world was helping Iraq to inflict this war against us," he complains. "For eight years, we were saying Iraq was the aggressor. The U.S. did not believe our grievances until later on, when they found they had created a monster in the Persian Gulf. Then they went after him, like they're now going after Osama bin Laden."

And yet, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States and Iran appear to be sending out signals of cooperation rather than confrontation.

In mid-October, the New York Times reported that Iran has agreed to rescue any American military personnel who might be shot down or forced to land in Iranian territory. In return, the Bush administration has assured Iran that the United States would respect its territorial integrity -- including its airspace -- while conducting military strikes against Afghanistan's Taliban rulers.

According to the paper, the agreements "reflect what appears to be a significant shift in Iranian-American relations since Sept. 11," and "could have political ramifications extending far beyond the fate of American military personnel."

While not commenting directly on the latest diplomatic maneuverings, Jahansoozan did criticize the bombing raids on Afghanistan, with which it shares a 560-mile border.

"Every time U.S. interests are involved, they come to us for help. But we cannot forgive and forget everything in the past," he said. "We have our own differences with the Taliban regime, but so far neither the U.S. or any other government has come up with concrete evidence to support charges that the Taliban or Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attacks."

Nevertheless, he added that "our president was among the very first heads of state who condemned these tragic incidents in the United States. We condemn all kinds of terrorism, be it the downing of an airplane, or killing innocent people in Palestine, or in Afghanistan. Terrorism is terrorism. You cannot pick and choose."

How ironic, then, that Iran is still listed by the State Department as the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism, mainly because of its support for Lebanon's Hezbollah and two Palestinian terrorist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But Iran's man in Washington says it's all a matter of perception.

"We do not consider ourselves to be a state that sponsors terrorism. I don't know what the basis is for that accusation," Jahansoozan told us. "Hezbollah is not a terrorist group. They've been struggling for land occupied by Israelis. They have a legitimate reason for fighting. Is it not terrorist activity when an Israeli commander who has been trained in the U.S. goes into Hebron and kills innocent people with machine guns? What other government has set up hit men to assassinate members of another government? None of this has been condemned by the U.S. government. So how can the U.S. be the leader of this coalition against terrorism?"

Painfully aware of anti-American sentiment in Tehran, yet wary of offending a nation that could be especially useful in isolating the Taliban, Washington is suddenly going to great lengths to patch up its differences with Iran.

The Bush administration recently asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought against Tehran by the 52 American hostages and their families. A full-scale, interagency review led by the State Department's policy planning director, Richard N. Haass, is looking into whether it's time to drop U.S. economic sanctions against Iran. And on Oct. 7, reports the New York Times, U.S. and Iranian officials met in Geneva to discuss the shape of a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that Iran is willing to set aside its concerns about the American bombardment of Afghanistan and work with the U.S. in its war on terrorism -- even to the point of sharing intelligence. Mohsen Rezai, the former head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard who now serves as secretary of Iran's powerful Expediency Council, told the London newspaper: "If the Americans get trapped in the swamp of Afghanistan, they will definitely need Iran."

Indeed, the United States and Iran have a common interest in seeing the Taliban regime fall -- the Americans because of its continuing protection of Osama bin Laden, and the Iranians because of their neighbors' religious fanaticism.

"The Taliban have chosen to degrade Islam," said Jahansoozan. "They have destroyed the virtues of Islam by bringing all these man-made rules and regulations into their system of government. Even at the very beginning of the revolution, we weren't anything like the Taliban. We did not ask women to cover themselves from head to toe. Women were very free. There have been elections, and women have the right to choose. There's no way you can compare Iran with the Taliban."

He adds: "We don't want to have a chaotic government in a neighboring state where there's no stability. We'd rather have a stable, hostile government. With the Taliban, we don't know what they're going to do next."

One consequence of increased American-Iranian cooperation might be the dropping of U.S. economic sanctions against the Iranian government, currently led by President Mohammad Khatami and the nation's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

These sanctions are enshrined in two laws: executive orders dating from 1995, which prohibit most trade and investment with Iran, and the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which punishes Iran for supporting anti-Israel terrorist activity.

Under ILSA, the U.S. government may levy penalties against foreign companies that make annual investments of more than $20 million in Iran's oil industry, though the Clinton administration waived the penalties in every case, arguing they could damage relations with key allies of the United States.

"Iran is not the only country suffering from economic unilateral sanctions," says Jahansoozan. "The U.S. itself is being hurt as well. For example, Boeing would want to sell Iran airplanes. This is for their own benefit; they're not worried about Iran's fleet becoming obsolete. And I don't think all these oil and gas companies are worried about Iran's economy."

When he's not busy fighting sanctions or attending to consular matters, Jahansoozan spends his time mending fences with America's huge Iranian exile community, estimated at between 800,000 and 1.2 million. About 60% of these Iranians live in California, while another 100,000 to 150,000 reside in the Washington metropolitan area.

"Ever since I've become the director of the Interests Section, I've tried to reduce the tension between ourselves and these self-exiled Iranians. There is no restriction for them from going back to Iran," he said. "Many of them have come to our office. They receive passports from us without any problem. They have been very sympathetic to Iran. Back in 1995, when there was an earthquake, the Iranian community was very helpful. In general, we don't consider them anti-revolutionaries."

Recently, the Interests Section launched a Farsi-language website for Iranians living here, and earlier this year Jahansoozan attended a soccer match in Los Angeles between the United States and Iran. "We took the official flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it was the first time these exiles had seen an official of the Iranian government," he said. "They felt proud."

Jahansoozan, who will be replaced this month by incoming director Ali Jazini Dorcheh, says he's not sure where his career will go next. Nor can he predict what the future really holds for U.S.-Iranian relations. But he did say his country would stick to its moral, political and religious principles, come what may.

"We are all creatures of God, and we are bound to progress, not to regress," he said. "We know what's important for us, and we don't care what other nations say, so long as we do not step beyond the boundaries of Islam."

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