IMAGE: Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Joe Marquette  /  AP file
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said moderates in Tehran were “showing some signs of wanting to improve relations.”
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/30/2004 4:33:27 PM ET 2004-01-30T21:33:27

Staff members from Congress will visit Iran next month in a bid to improve relations with Tehran, Sen. Arlen Specter said Friday.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Specter, R-Pa., said he hoped the visit, which he finalized Wednesday in a meeting with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, would lead to trips to Tehran by members of Congress and then by Bush administration officials.

“They are showing some signs of wanting to improve relations,” Specter said by telephone from his office in Philadelphia. “Now is a good time.”

Specter, who will send an assistant as part of the group, said he had consulted with a senior Bush administration official before taking up the subject with Ambassador Mohammed Javad Zarif at dinner in the U.S. Capitol.

Apparently, the visit would be the first by congressional staffers to Iran since Iran’s 1979 revolution, in which the shah was overthrown and the U.S. Embassy was overrun by religious fundamentalists. U.S. officials there were held hostage for 444 days.

State Department approves trip
The State Department cleared the ambassador to travel to Washington. Normally, U.N. ambassadors of countries with which the United States does not have relations are limited to a 25-mile radius of New York.

Asked about the planned visit, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: “We have always encouraged exchanges, people-to-people exchanges, with Iranians, with Iran. It sounds like it would be fine with us if that’s what they decided to do.”

Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who was one of four House members who joined Specter at the dinner, said he hoped the visit would lead to official meetings with reform-minded members of Iran’s elected parliament but not with the hard-line administration.

“Any parliamentarians interested in building a safer Mideast, in giving democracy its growth in Iran and the Middle East, I’ll be more than happy to meet with them,” he said.

Ney described the dinner with Zarif as “very civil, a wonderful exchange between everyone at the table.” But he said, “We’ll be hit over here about, this and some people will be attacked over there because some of the conservatives won’t like this kind of thing.”

A House aide described the dinner as “very controversial” among lawmakers who oppose contact with the Tehran government.

Mixed signals from Tehran
Officials within the Bush administration appear to hold differing views about prospects for an accommodation with Iran, which President Bush two years ago denounced as part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and North Korea.

Some officials are convinced a strong reformist element exists in Iran, receptive especially to young people's desires for modernization. Other officials believe fundamentalist Muslim clerics remain in ultimate control in Tehran and have consistently vetoed liberalization.

Specter said he told Zarif that if Iran wanted better relations, it should withdraw its support from Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that has fought a cross-border war with Israel and is listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department.

Iran provides weapons to Hezbollah through Syria, which effectively controls Lebanon, according to department officials.

The ambassador retorted that Iran was a force for stability in southern Lebanon, Specter said, but “I disagreed.”

Specter said Iran was enormously impressed by the Bush administration’s use of force in Iraq and had shown signs of wanting better relations. He cited Iran’s decision to submit its nuclear facilities to international inspection.

Also, Specter said, “They have helped us in the fight against al-Qaida and in the Afghanistan situation.”

“I don't think we have given them sufficient credit. They deserve credit” for their support against the terror network headed by Osama bin Laden, he said.

Mixed signals from Tehran
U.S. officials are still sifting through the series of mixed signals Tehran has sent in the past month.

Government moderates and religious hard-liners are locked in a dispute over who may run in next month’s legislative elections . The conservative Guardian Council on Friday reinstated a third of the candidates it had disqualified, but more than 2,400 liberals were still barred from running, and a leading liberal predicted a mass boycott by reformist politicians.

Iran accepted more emergency relief aid from the United States after a devastating earthquake killed more than 30,000 people in the historic city of Bam last month. But it then turned down the offer of a visit by a high-level U.S. humanitarian delegation.

In mid-January, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, Mohammad Hossein Adeli, called on the United States to take more concrete diplomatic steps toward Iran after President Bush eased some U.S. sanctions for 90 days to speed earthquake assistance.

Last week, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met for 90 minutes with Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Neither man would comment on the topics.

Then, Thursday, Kharrazi said U.N. inspections would reassure the world of the “absolute peaceful nature” of the Islamic Republic's nuclear activities. But in the same speech, to the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, he also said Iran would pursue its “inalienable right to nuclear technology” for peaceful purposes.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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