Lantos wants to visit Iran for informal talks

By the Bulletin's presstime Wednesday, Lantos' office had received no official answer.

Lantos made the written overture to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on Thursday of last week — a day after a CNN interview with the Middle East leader.

In the interview, Khatami offered to begin informal exchanges of writers, scholars and artists between Iran and the United States.

"Khatami, in a symbolic sense, opened the door," said Lantos, who is a senior member of the House international relations committee.

It was the first time an Iranian official has reached out to the United States since the 1979 Islamic revolution and the taking of more than 50 American hostages.

Lantos said the Iranians "can demonstrate that Khatami's expression is substantive" if they accept the congressman's offer.

Since Khatami's election in May, he has been painted as more moderate than his predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In the CNN interview, however, Khatami had harsh words for Israel, which he called a "racist, terrorist regime." He also said Iran opposes the Mideast peace process but would not "impose" its views on the Palestinians.

Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and a longtime Israel supporter, was tight-lipped when asked whether re-establishing U.S.-Iran relations could help Israel.

"It's self-evident that if the U.S. would have improved relations, this would be constructive overall…This would be beneficial for the whole region," he said.

Given the sensitivity of the situation, he declined to elaborate. "What I'm saying is very carefully measured."

The congressman said he had not discussed his plans with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and had no idea what the organized Jewish world's response to his actions might be.

AIPAC has long supported sanctions against Iran, most recently noting Iran's potential to build missiles that could reach Israel. Naomi Lauter, AIPAC's regional director, referred calls to the national offices. AIPAC's top national officials, all of whom were in Israel this week, could not be reached for comment.

Some Israelis, however, have warned that Iran may use improved relations with the West for a military buildup — something Israel views with concern.

When asked whether as a Holocaust survivor he had any qualms about visiting a country that funds terrorism against Jews, Lantos would say only: "It's obvious…that by expressing my desire to go, I've answered that question."

Lantos, who noted his long-running interest in Persian culture and civilization, visited Iran in 1978 when he was a San Francisco State University professor.

The congressman made his first gesture to Iran indirectly during an Islamic conference in Tehran last month. But he decided to try again after Khatami's speech.

In his letter last week to Khatami, Lantos wrote: "In light of the statements made during your interview last night, I would like to renew directly with you my proposal to visit Iran."

Though Lantos hadn't heard any official response to his offer yet, he had been told that the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations had conveyed the message to Tehran.

The Iranian government has expressed its opposition to direct government talks. But Lantos said that without even informal talks, the likelihood of direct government relations is "that much smaller."

Visiting Iran would be only the first step toward reestablishing diplomatic relations, he noted.

The United States has three items that need to be dealt with first, Lantos said. They include Iran's support for terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, its opposition to the Israeli-Arab peace process and its buildup of weapons of mass destruction.

This isn't the first time that Lantos has tried to defrost frozen relations.

In 1990, he became the first U.S. official to visit Albania since 1945. The United States has since established full diplomatic ties with the former communist nation.

"There is a parallel," he said.