Twenty years ago today, a group of Islamic militants took 53 members of the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Iran as hostages. That crisis lasted 444 days, although its effects color Tehran’s relations with the United State to this day. On this 20th anniversary, Washington — with a few exceptions, as always — seems prepared to move on. In Iran, however, the subject of relations with the U.S. remains as contentious as ever, the bright red line in a society deeply divided between radicals and conservatives. Those divisions are on display today in Tehran.

The Iranian Parliament, dominated by hardliners, has declared the anniversary, a “national day against global arrogance,” thinly veiled code for the U.S. Yet, in another indication of the splits in Iranian society, conservatives will hold a demonstration at the embassy. Reformers held their own rally earlier in the week after warning that there would be no flag-burning or other inflammatory imagery.

Although the rhetoric used by the two sides is similar, evidence of a split is readily apparent. President Mohammad Khatami, the leader of the reformers, has been making conciliatory noises toward the U.S. since he was elected two and a half years ago. Last month, he called for “a dialogue between cultures and civilizations” when speaking at a conference at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In one of those inevitable ironies, some of his most vocal allies are the militants who seized the U.S. hostages in 1979.

They are being checked by the conservatives, who see any moves toward rapprochement with the U.S. as a repudiation of the Iranian revolution. There is more to it than that. Relations with the U.S. are the most tangible symbol of the ideological straitjacket the country adopted after 1979. The hardliners speak of the legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but they are also eager to preserve their special status in society, and the power and the economic rewards that flow from it.

Conservatives took a beating in the most recent elections, but they still control the judiciary, the security forces and the Parliament. Recent trials of reformers and students, and the closure of newspapers close to the liberals, are all proof that the hardliners will make no concessions to their opponents.

Mr. Khatami is well aware of his vulnerability. He hopes his allies will take control of Parliament in elections scheduled for next year, and there is every reason to believe they would win a fair vote. The chief dangers are a pre-emptive strike by conservatives that would include the disqualification of reformist candidates or a backlash against disorder.

That means the president must tread carefully. He must not appear to be going more than halfway when dealing with the U.S., and he must make sure that hot-headed allies do not push too far, too fast. The first factor is behind the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s rejection of the U.S. call for the two countries to “engage each other as two great nations, face-to-face, on the basis of equality and mutual respect.” The second explains Mr. Khatami’s failure to stand firmly behind student demonstrators earlier this year.

If Washington is serious about bettering relations with Tehran, it could help out the embattled president. The call for dialogue is invariably premised with demands that Iran renounce its alleged support for terrorism and its missile development program. Those may be U.S. diplomatic objectives, but it is unrealistic and counterproductive to set them as preconditions for talks. U.S. efforts to discourage other countries and companies from investing in Iran win it no friends in Tehran.

The U.S. must also realize that hard feelings toward it predate the 1979 revolution. Many Iranians — not just Islamic fundamentalists — resent U.S. interference in the country’s internal affairs that started in 1953, when the U.S. helped overthrow the existing government and install a more sympathetic ruler in the person of the shah. Unflinching U.S. support despite the brutal excesses of the Pahlavi regime made Washington a fair target for their anger. Subsequent efforts to contain Iran strengthened the hardliners’ claim that Washington is unwilling to give Tehran its rightful place in the region.

The world is better served by a moderate government in Tehran. It seems clear that many Iranians prefer to break the grip of the hardliners. The rest of the world can help by treating Mr. Khatami with the respect he deserves as leader of a distinguished nation, with a rich history. A visit to Japan, the invitation for which was conveyed last week by the new ambassador to Iran, would be a boost. But only Iran can close the door on the last 20 years.

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