WASHINGTON -- Four years after the election of Mohammad Khatami as Iran's president, that country remains the only one that refuses to have political discussions with the United States.
It wasn't supposed to be that way.
For all of Khatami's greatly praised moderation, he has to defer on national security questions to powerful, highly conservative Islamic clerics. As a result, U.S.-Iranian relations remain no less frozen than they were at the time he took office.
As Khatami prepares for election to another term on June 8, there is no expectation that the situation will change.
The Bush administration, while normally wary of unilateral sanctions, is inclined to support an extension of sanctions against Iran that would otherwise expire in August.
The Clinton administration sought to open an official dialogue with Iran, but Iran persistently said no, preferring exchanges of scholars and athletes instead. Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently that the U.S. offer of dialogue is no longer on the table.
For a country not to have a dialogue with the United States is an aberration. Geoffrey Kemp, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Nixon Center, notes that ''even officials from North Korea and Cuba meet with the United States, as the Soviet Union did during the height of the Cold War.''
Insofar as the two countries talk, they hold technical discussions periodically about financial claims dating from the pro-American government in Iran that was deposed in 1979. Political issues are off limits.
Despite the Bush administration's general view that unilateral sanctions are a bad idea, Vice President Dick Cheney said Friday the United States would have to see some change in the climate before the administration endorses lifting the sanctions. Many in Congress seem to agree.
Suzanne Maloney, who follows Iran at the Brookings Institution, says Iran's continued support for anti-Israeli guerrillas in Lebanon takes on an added dimension in the context of the collapse of the Middle East peace process over the past eight months.
She also points out that Iran served as host recently for a conference that included leaders of three organizations that are among Israel's most violent opponents.
Says Kemp, ''Hostility to Israel has done more to harm Iran's image in the United States, especially within Congress, than any issue since the 1979-80 hostage crisis.'' Another obvious U.S. concern is Iran's development of weapons of mass destruction.
Iran has its own list of grievances against the United States, including a CIA-sponsored coup in 1953 that deposed a popular prime minister and long years of U.S. support for the successor regime, led by an authoritarian monarch.
The sanctions law, known informally as ILSA, also applies to Libya. It is designed to impose penalties on foreign companies that do business with the energy sector in either country, but no company has been penalized since the law was approved in 1996.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., a member of the House International Relations Committee, wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post that the sanctions law should be renewed because it limits Iran's oil profits. Tehran uses these profits, Lantos said, ''to bankroll its weapons of mass destruction program and terrorist activities.''
Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, advocating an end to the law, says a gesture from the United States ''might provide encouragement and impetus to reformers who so eagerly seek change.''
Thirteen major trade associations agree, arguing that the Iran issue ''requires a far more sophisticated and targeted approach than ILSA -- which is nothing more than a blunt instrument that hinders the real work of U.S. diplomacy.''
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
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