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Iran walks diplomatic tightrope, weighs ties with U.S.

No issue is more central in Iran these days than the officially nonexistent relations with the United States.

How the Islamic state should handle ties with Washington, which were severed in 1979 after militants attacked the U.S. Embassy and took its diplomats hostage, is a topic that divides hard-liners from reformers, and seemingly President Mohammad Khatami, who left for the United States Thursday, from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The ayatollah has firmly rejected the idea of a dialogue with the United States, saying those who even suggest it should be removed from their positions. The hard-line judiciary went beyond its constitutional role and set up a body that was supposed to ensure that no official would pursue relations with the United States.

But reformers have ignored this injunction and insisted that it is in Iran's national interest to talk to Washington.

Khatami, elected twice with sizable majorities, lately has been sounding more conciliatory toward Washington. He conferred with Khamenei, who is formally in charge of foreign policy, before he left, with the official IRNA news agency saying only that the supreme leader offered guidance.

At the onset of America's war against Afghanistan _ whose Sunni Muslim Taliban rulers have long been foes of Iran's Shiite Muslim leaders _ Iran agreed to assist U.S. pilots if they were downed on Iranian soil. Iran's representative to the United Nations, Mohammad Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian, met with several senators in Washington in an effort aimed at mending relations.

Further, several moderate legislators in Iran came out publicly in favor of improving relations.

Behzad Nabavi, a prominent member of Parliament who in the past has expressed anti-American sentiments, said his reformist party, known as the Second of Khordad Front, wants normal relations with all countries except Israel.

"Normalizing ties with America does not contradict our values of 22 years ago when the embassy was seized _ the conditions of today require different policies," he said in an interview.

Another reformist member of Parliament, Jamileh Kadivar, noted that Iran has to juggle two seemingly contradictory goals: On the one hand, it wants to stymie any threat from Afghanistan, a state that it almost waged war against in 1998 over the killing of 10 diplomats and a journalist by the Taliban, but on the other, it wants to preserve its standing as a leading Islamic country by remaining loyal to a Muslim nation while it is being attacked.

"Our difficulty is that because of Iran's geopolitical position we have to adopt policies that would serve our national interests in the region, and as an Islamic country we have to stand by the religious values we raised ourselves," Kadivar said during a seminar sponsored by the Foreign Ministry in Tehran. "Thus, Iran has tried to maintain a policy of active neutrality, so that it would not appear that Iran is supporting either America or the Taliban."

Iran is still on America's terrorist list, she noted, and indeed many Iranians are concerned that if the nation does not play its cards right, the war might include Iran.

Officials here say that none of the 22 most wanted terrorists named by the Bush administration reside in Iran. Imad Fayez Mughniyah, one of the driving forces behind Hezbollah, holds Iranian citizenship, but authorities here say he has left the country.

For now, however, both Iran and the United States are emphasizing their common interests, with their officials meeting quietly in an eight-nation group that gathers in Geneva.