US-Iran Shadow Dance at UN Theatre

09/27/2000
Entering the UN premises to attend the millennium summit on the morning of September 6th, some youthful members of the Iranian delegation were cheerfully competing in discreet voices to complete a beautiful Persian song. They had good reason. Less than an hour later, after making an address on behalf of the host country, The President of the United States William Jefferson Clinton, sustained by his Secretary of State, was intently listening to a speech by their chief, Iranian President Sayyed Mohemmed Khatemi. That was a clearly political approach helped by a slight shift in speaking arrangements.It was preceded a day earlier by an intellectual approach. At the debate on “dialogue among cultures” propelled Sayyed Khatemi, Dr. Albright- this time in a shift of travel schedule- attended and applauded.

With a five minute limit, the Iranian President’s political speech was noted not only for what was included but for what it bypassed. Despite an inevitable dig at the “experiences of a few power holders”:, he wisely averted any of the controversial issues. The intellectual dance was much easier. Theological culture is the acknowledged specialty of the black turbanned Sayyed and political thought is the passion of the former Professor and US Secretary of State, whatever her brooch of the day.

Then came the meeting of countries concerned with the situation in Afghanistan, or what is known as the six plus two group, that is the neighbors of that tormented country in addition to Russia and the U.S. Yet despite full media coverage, or possibly because of it, there was no direct Albright-Kharraggi meeting in tiny Conference Room Eight. “They seemed comfortable with each other’s presence”, was the most that a spinner would claim. Actually, while Albright was informing the press afterwards about the non-meeting meeting, the experienced Kharraggi, a former head of the Iranian News Agency, was seen slipping casually behind the crowd. The two actually have known each other since they served as permanent representatives of their countries in New York. Yet due to a habit established by envoys of the Islamic Republic of Iran, about greeting women, both can credibly state that they never shook hands.

Later towards the end of September, specific helpful measures were taken by both sides. The Iranian Foreign Minister was granted a special visa to visit several American universities in key cities, a suggestion made in vain three years following a diplomatic breakfast with American TV personality Dan Rather. And in Teheran, earlier court sentences against some defendants who are of the Jewish faith were found to be legally inadequate and thus reduced mostly by half. In a main policy speech in Teheran Sayyed Khatemi highlighted Iran’s role as a “force for peace” in the region and the world, adding obviously the inevitable conditions.

Nuances matter in politics, particularly in old cultures. What you see is not always what you get. But you will know it if you are generally on the right track. If, for example, political statements of these days from Teheran or Washington are compared to those say five years ago, two main lines could be noted: one consistent on the main principles and another flexible on specific issues. That would apply to the Middle East and handling of international relations especially neighboring states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

About a year ago, when Dr.Albright was under attack in Washington D.C. in for downgraded influence and refreshing performance, she was asked by a sympathetic reporter about any shining moments in the sun. She referred to Iran . That response puzzled many. There was no clear opening in relations at the time, except for a few careful steps- a TV interview there, a guarded statement here. Neither are there substantial indications now of a major breakthrough. The power structure within the system framework in Iran is too complicated to be interpreted in individualistic terms. And the forthcoming U.S. elections make it too sensitive for the President to go out on a limb and take the measures expected by the Iranian establishment in order to begin a clearly new relationship. Yet each additional day of such a choreographed friendly approach is a thousand times better than one day of recrimination. More fortunately in this case, Madeline Albright decided to artfully play ballerina then dance the macarena.