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Iran's Internal Struggle Dims U.S. Hopes for Detente

Politics: Rebuff of White House effort to atone for wrestlers' treatment is blamed on moves against reformist.

April 09, 1998|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Three months after the first diplomatic opening in a generation between the United States and Iran, the Clinton administration is deeply concerned that rapprochement is now threatened by a fierce power struggle between Mohammad Khatami, the reformist Iranian president, and hard-line conservatives in his country.

The effect of the escalating political battle was felt here this week as the White House scrambled to atone for the clumsy way U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials handled a visiting Iranian wrestling team's entry into this country last week.

To make amends and signal its support for people-to-people diplomacy, the White House tried to arrange for the wrestlers to meet Wednesday with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who speaks Persian and did a Peace Corps stint in Iran. But the goodwill gesture was rejected at the last minute because of reluctance by Iranian officials to approve direct contacts in the Islamic Republic's current political environment, Iranian and U.S. sources said.

In Iran, with the arrest Saturday of Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the mayor of Tehran and his chief political ally, Khatami is in the most perilous position since his surprise election in May. Karbaschi, a powerful civic leader and innovative reformer who has transformed the capital since his appointment in 1989, is accused of misappropriating public funds.

But the real motive behind the arrest appears to be attempts by conservatives, who control Iran's judiciary, to destabilize Khatami's power base. "The arrest of the mayor is the biggest challenge Khatami has faced," a senior Clinton administration official said. "His call for a . . . dialogue with the West is now at stake."

Tehran's political rivalries, which have simmered since Khatami's inauguration in August, have begun to boil in recent weeks. Iranian sources link Karbaschi's arrest with the president's attempt to reform the judiciary, one of the last bastions of hard-liners.

Khatami has replaced many hard-liners, including the ministers of intelligence and defense, the Revolutionary Guards commander and dozens of lower officials associated with militant domestic practices and anti-Western positions. The judiciary was next.

Khatami's government is rallying behind Karbaschi. Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri on Tuesday expressed "doubts" about the judiciary's "competency," while Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani said the Cabinet, which was not informed of the arrest, was "shocked and saddened." He warned of serious "damage" to "public administration."

Faezeh Hashemi, a member of parliament and daughter of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, blasted the judiciary for "suspect and arbitrary" behavior.

Karbaschi is now scheduled to stand trial in three weeks, although Khatami is said to be working hard behind the scenes to win his freedom. The president appealed Monday directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all government actions.

But the power struggle ultimately pits Khatami against Khamenei, another former president who is widely considered to be the ranking conservative. Khamenei has come under growing criticism from several segments of society, including Iran's dominant young people, who question his credentials for the job and the unlimited power of his post.

Karbaschi's fate will offer the strongest indication to date as to whether Khatami can press ahead with domestic reforms and foreign policy initiatives. For the United States, the danger is that the power struggle may claim Khatami's overture to the American people, made in January--when he called for people-to-people exchanges to "break the wall of mistrust."

The reaction to the Clinton administration's invitation to the wrestling team already shows that Iran's government "is not comfortable taking decisions that might prove controversial," the senior U.S. official said. "Iranians are being very careful and watching how the power struggle comes out. The wrestlers are part of it."

U.S. officials had invited the Iranian team, whose members were fingerprinted and photographed when they arrived April 1 for the World Cup competition, on a special tour of the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum, hosted by Shalala. When bookings for the team's early Wednesday departure could not be changed, the State Department tried to set up a meeting at Reagan National Airport. The 18-member delegation expressed interest in the meeting, but Iranian officials decided late Tuesday to turn down the offer.

Along with the FBI and the INS, the State Department next week will begin reviewing the law that requires Iranians to be fingerprinted on entry--a rule that applies to civilians but not to officials who come to the United Nations, World Bank or other U.S.-based international institutions. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Monday that the rules might have to change if they undercut cultural exchanges.

But the State Department also is to release this month its annual global terrorism survey, which, according to U.S. counter-terrorism officials, will identify Iran as the world's top sponsor of state terrorism, though it does take note of the "conciliatory" statements made by Khatami early this year. The report links Tehran with 13 political assassinations in 1997, mainly of opposition leaders in the People's Moujahedeen and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, both based in northern Iraq. Most but not all predate Khatami's inauguration.

Tehran also hosted a conference last fall of the region's leading militant groups, including Lebanon's Hezbollah, or Party of God; the Palestinians' Islamic Jihad and Hamas; and Egypt's Gamaa al Islamiya, the report charges.

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