SPOTLIGHT'S ON KEY VOTE AS IRAN REACHES OUT

SPOTLIGHT'S ON KEY VOTE AS IRAN REACHES OUT

Iran's crusade to improve its international image continues.

In the latest move, the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, completed a two-day visit to London. He is the most senior Iranian official to visit Britain since the 1979 Iranian revolution.In a sign of the importance the British attach to the visit, he met his counterpart, Robin Cook, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Cook is scheduled to visit Tehran later in the year.

Kharrazi's visit is the latest in a series of trips by senior Iranian figures to Europe. Last year, President Mohammad Khatami paid high-profile visits to Italy and France.

Iran's public-relations campaign is not confined to Europe. Even Iran's archenemy, the ''Great Satan,'' the United States, is subtly being included in this crusade.

The Iranian national soccer team, on tour in the United States, played the U.S. national team Sunday. The match - a 1-1 tie - offered the chance for the United States to avenge its 2-1 defeat when the two sides met for the first time in the 1998 World Cup in France.

That match, like the latest, was played in good spirits and was an important goodwill gesture between the countries. The tour by the Iranian team would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Sporting and cultural contacts offer the best hope of slowly thawing the considerable tensions that persist between the two sides a generation after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Political contacts between the sides remain highly controversial.

American sports teams, notably the U.S. wrestling team, have visited Iran. Wrestling rivals soccer as Iran's most popular spectator sport.

Iran attaches great importance to the benefits it hopes to gain from such improved relations with the international community. The country needs foreign investment and access to modern technology to prevent economic collapse.

Its population has grown rapidly since the revolution - the majority of Iranians have no memory of the events of 1979 - and the economy has failed to develop at the same pace.

Iran needs the foreign investment to maintain development of its oil resources and to exploit its extensive gas reserves.

It also needs the investment to construct the infrastructure to cope with this growing population and to diversify its economy to satisfy their economic aspirations.

The crusade is beginning to have results. In 1999, the Anglo-Dutch Shell oil company signed a $800 million contract to develop an offshore oil field, and French and Canadian companies have signed similar agreements.

For Britain, other European countries, Canada and even the United States, there are also significant benefits to be gained from improved relations with Iran.

First, Iran is a key regional power in an area that continues to dominate world oil supplies. Western governments have come to realize that having good relations with key states in this vital region is the best hope of ensuring long-term security and stability there.

During much of the 1990s, the Western world relied solely on Saudi Arabia as its ally in the region. The long-term outlook for Saudi Arabia is uncertain, with doubts over the smooth succession to the current ruler, King Fahd.

Reliance on only one state in the region is no longer seen as a viable policy option.

Second, there are the economic benefits of access to Iran's natural resources and its large market.

Oil companies have been in the forefront of the push for better relations with Iran. The oil companies' continuous search for new fields, along with low oil prices in recent years (before March 1999), led them to Iran, where even offshore fields are relatively cheap to exploit. Iran also has abundant oil and gas reserves.

Investment by foreign companies in Iran helps ensure jobs back home, as does increased trade with the country. Britain is hoping for increased trade with Iran and more contracts similar to the Shell deal.

European countries and Canada are hoping to capture the Iranian market at a time U.S. companies are still locked out by domestic sanctions.

Khatami and Kharrazi's work in recent months to improve Iran's international image is laying the groundwork for what they hope will be the real re-entry of Iran into the world economic system.

(The report this week that Iran may have nuclear capabilities is likely to have an impact on that work, but it could not be immediately ascertained.)

Iran's r-eentry, however, will only occur if Khatami's supporters triumph in parliamentary elections scheduled for February.

Khatami's conservative opponents currently dominate the Majlis (parliament,) and this limits his ability to enact his reform program and encourage foreign investment.

A positive outcome for Khatami is not assured, with the conservatives battling to keep his candidates out of the elections. Victory for the conservatives would not kill Iran's improved relations with the West - but it would hamper future improvements.