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By The Associated Press MONTPELLIER, France (AP) -- Iran is going home from its first World Cup in 20 years earlier than hoped, yet hailed as a team of heroes.
The last team to qualify for the 32-nation finals, Iran showed it could take the field against soccer powers without embarrassment.
And it won the game that mattered most back home, a 2-1 victory over the United States that set off wild celebrations in Tehran, where America has been reviled since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
A 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia in the opener was seen as a moral victory in a match where Iran had been expected to crumble. Same for Thursday night's 2-0 defeat by three-time champion Germany, a game that was scoreless at halftime.
``This World Cup was a great experience for us and I hope it did a lot for the future of soccer in our country,'' coach Jalal Talebi said. ``I am pleased with the players and I congratulate them and the Iranian nation.''
Players will receive government-paid bonuses of at least $8,500 apiece, and reports said they could expect other gifts, including expense-paid pilgrimages to Mecca.
When Iran clinched its World Cup berth with a playoff win over Australia last year, millions in Tehran poured into the streets in celebration.
That joy soon turned to fear. Iran was drawn in a tough group with two superior teams and the country's arch political and cultural foe. Many in the soccer-mad nation feared their team could end up being humiliated before billions of fans around the world.
Not even close. After the victory over the United States, Talebi talked realistically about reaching the second round.
``We are going home happy,'' midfielder Ali Reza Mansourian said. ``We did our best, and we know that our people also are happy with us. These games showed us that the difference between Asian soccer and the best teams in the world is not that great. It is a difference we can make up.''
Iran, three-time Asian champions, was the only Asian team to win a first-round game. Talebi said that win, big as it was, took something out of the team.
``After our victory against the United States, players felt that their work was finished, and they didn't have the same motivation (against Germany) as they had against the United States,'' the coach said.
German coach Berti Vogts said beating Iran was not easy.
``I had said before that we have to be careful with Iran, and I was proven right,'' he said. Oliver Bierhoff and Juergen Klinsmann scored on a pair of headers early in the second half to put Germany into Round 2 against Mexico.
Iranian soccer reached its previous height with its only other World Cup appearance in Argentina in 1978. The Islamic revolution a year later and the 1980-88 war with Iraq virtually killed the sport.
Some of the country's best soccer talent left, or abandoned sports altogether in an effort to make a living.
In recent years, however, several Iranian players have made a name on some of the world's best clubs.
Strikers Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi all play in Germany's Bundesliga, and a fourth player, Alireza Mansourian, says he also has an offer from a German club. Mehdi Mahdavikia, Iran's rising star who got the game-winner against the United States, has an offer from Inter Milan.
More Iranian players are expected to be in demand with European clubs after showing off their talent at the World Cup.
``We did the best with the minimum facilities available to us back home,'' Talebi said.
By J. Javid Steps of Rome Cafe San Francisco June 25, 1998
Let's not even talk about the game itself. We did not play well at all. The problem was not that the Germans were so good (they're ranked second or third in the world), rather we BELIEVED they were the best in the world. We were so intimidated that we weren't able to play up to our potential.
But it's all over now. We go home with a 1-2-0 record. Which is not bad at all. I gurantee you: We'll be back in four years and we'll do better.
So we were watching the game here at an Italian cafe in San Francisco. The Iranians had packed the top "lozh (lodge)" section and the Germans sat around in the main hall in the bottom. Eyes glued on the TV sets. Every once in a while one side would shout "Deutchland, Deutchland" and the other answered, "Iran, Iran."
It reminded me of the scene in Casablanca when the German troops started singing their national anthem at Rick's Cafe American and then the customers representing Occupied France (in occupied Morocco, by the way) began out-shouting the enemy with their own patriotic song.
Well, we all know what happened next. The German general ordered Rick's be closed at once!
At the Steps of Rome, however, the rivalry continued. The owner and waiters were enjoying every bit of it (and selling more and more glasses of beer).
When the Germans finally scored, their fans took the upper hand. There were a couple of attempts to raise Iranian spirits with "bacheh-haa hamleh konin...(attack boys, attack)" (as if...). But Germany's second goal took care of that as well. Discounting the occasional angry screams in frustration, silence took over the Iranian group. We didn't feel any better when the German fans made faces at us.
So we're sitting there, basically waiting for this torture to end. One of the Iranian fans put his hand by his mouth and whispered something to the guy next to him. O oh. I smell trouble, I thought. What sort of conspiracy is being hatched here? Whatever it was, I hoped it wasn't going to be too ugly.
The guy turned to the Iranians fans around him and said in Persian, "When the game ends, let's all stand up and congratulate the Germans."
Frankly, I was shocked. I for one, was in no mood to congratulate any one. But there you go...
When the game ended, another surprise: The Iranians AND the Germans stood up simultaneously and cheered each other. I gotta get out of here, I thought. Too sweet for me to handle...
But as I drove back home, I thought less and less about today's loss, and more about the whole World Cup experience. What is certain is that the world now has a different view of us. And for that, we must thank the players and the fans.
P.S. The owner of the Steps of Rome tried to console us after the defeat. "Don't worry," he said in his thick Italian accent and a big smile. "We'll take care of the Germans in the next round."
And we couldn't contain our laughter.
ROME, June 27 (AFP) - Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi heads to Iran next week on the first visit to the Middle Eastern country by a western head of state since the 1978 Islamic revolution. Officials in Rome described Prodi's visit as an "exclusively political" trip aimed at understanding the changes taking place in Iran. Prodi will arrive in Tehran late Tuesday and will stay until Friday. He will hold a round of political meetings with, among others, President Mohammad Khatami and the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini paved the way for this visit back in March when he spent a few days in Tehran, shortly after the European Union's decision to speed up the process for normalising relations with Iran. This entails restoring ministerial contact which had been severed in April 1997. Italy has always advocated against isolating Iran, said Prodi's spokesman, Ricardo Franco Levi, adding that this position was adopted "while respecting commitments of solidarity with western countries." The Italian premier's visit comes as the United States began readdressing their attitude to Tehran. Prodi's visit was prepared "by constant dialogue with our allies who know they will be informed of the results, as will the Iranians," said Levi. He noted that the visit to Tehran showed that an opening up to the West could bear fruit for Iran.
TEHRAN, June 27 (AFP) - The Iranian leadership began a debate Saturday on use of the Internet in Iran, amid warnings from senior clergy of the potential threat to Islamic morals. "We have decided to discuss the constructive and efficient use of the Internet to prevent any possible damage," former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told state telvision after chairing a meeting of the Expediency Council. Rafsanjani, who stood down as president in August, remains an influential figure in Iran as a top advisor to spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Expediency Council he chairs is the highest authority to arbitrate on legal and theological disputes. After several years of resistance, the Iranian regime has started to open up the Internet to popular use although until now it was reserved for the elite, and for universities and government cultural institutions. Iranian leaders are now encouraging the establishment of Web sites dedicated to publishing propaganda or religious Shiite thinking. The traditional Shiite clergy is generally hostile to the Internet in Iran, where demand is strong but access is limited. Senior clerics have in the past expressed fears the World Wide Web could "poison" opinions and morals in the Islamic republic.
TEHRAN, June 27 (AFP) - Abbas Abdi, a leader of the group which took 52 members of the US embassy here hostage in 1979, said Saturday that the United States is seeking to "humiliate" Iran with its offer to begin a normalization of relations. "The main and sole objective of the United States is to humiliate the Iranian people," Abdi said in an editorial published in the moderate publication Rahe-No (New Way). Abdi, the 42-year-old chief editor of the radical left newspaper Salam, said the US government was seeking to put Iran "in the same situation of isolation as before the election of President Mohammad Khatami" in May 1997. "If the Americans succeed in re-isolating Iran, they will intensify their pressure to bring the Iranian people to their knees," he said, warning against the "friendly overtures" from Washington. Abdi was a member of the group charged with planning the seizure of US diplomats in Tehran on November 4, 1979, which led to a cutoff in relations. The Americans were released 444 days later. Salam, where Abdi works, is headed by Mohammad Khoenia, a former spokesman for the hostage-takers. A number of Iranian officials have given a hostile response to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's offer of a road map for normalization after 20 years of emnity. An influential member of Iran's conservative clergy said Friday a resumption of ties with the United States was impossible, and denounced the US offer to work towards normalisation as hypocritical. "American officials have proposed, hypocritically, that we normalise relations, but that is impossible and makes no sense under current circumstances," Ayatollah Ahmad Janati said. The leader of Iran's conservatives, parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, dubbed the offer "psychological warfare" and insisted that "all officials" of the Iranian government "resist and reject normalization." Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said Monday he did not believe the United States was sincere. But US officials have continued to make public statements pressing for a thawing of ties.
Conservative cleric says U.S.-Iran talks possible 08:23 a.m. Jun 26, 1998 Eastern
By Jonathan Lyons
TEHRAN, June 26 (Reuters) - A senior conservative cleric said on Friday that talks between Iran and the United States, estranged for 19 years, were possible provided Washington respected the principles of the Islamic Revolution.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati used the weekly Friday prayers at Tehran University to suggest that grounds for compromise with the country long denounced as the ``Great Satan'' may in fact exist.
``In the future, either we step back from our stance...or they abandon their anti-Islamic attitude, leave us alone and let us preserve our religion. In that case we could talk to each other,'' said Jannati, secretary of the authoritative Guardian Council and a leading conservative.
``Otherwise there could be no possibility of compromise.''
His comments mark the first substantive response to a major U.S. diplomatic initiative, tied to the World Cup clash between the two rivals earlier this week. They also display a potential softening of the conservative position long opposed to U.S. contacts.
``The problem between America and us is only Islam. We do not have any other problem,'' Jannati said.
Iran won a 2-1 soccer thriller against the United States in Lyon, France, touching off an outpouring of public joy rarely seen in the Islamic Republic.
But the crowd's enthusiasm -- for the home side and for the Americans -- has so far failed to spill over into the Iranian diplomatic arena.
No formal response has been issued either by President Mohammad Khatami or by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, something Western analysts here ascribe to the political volatility of relations with Iran's former patron.
``No one wants to be seen as taking the lead,'' said one Western diplomatic analyst. ``It is simply too hot an issue.''
Rather, say analysts, a consensus must first be reached within Iran's fractious leadership, something that could take time. Washington has said it does not expect a reaction ``overnight.''
In a World Cup message taped before the soccer match, President Bill Clinton said he sought ``genuine reconciliation'' with Iran based on mutual respect.
Earlier U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offered to explore new confidence building steps, with the ultimate aim of re-establishing normal relations, shattered by the 1979 hostage crisis.
But she ruled out any apology for U.S. support for the Shah, deposed in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Referring to the Iranian team's victory, Jannati said: ``People in many Asian countries held celebrations, which indicates a sense of hatred toward America everywhere.''
Washington must abandon the double standard whereby it gives Israel a free hand in the Middle East but applies a different standard to Iran, he said.
``They repeat all their previous accusations against us...
They try to sabotage the Iran-Europe oil and gas pipelines, they call us terrorists, they accuse us of trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, they have caused the oil price to drop so low that even its extraction may prove uneconomic.''
Clinton said in his message that he expected Iran to ``move away from support of terrorism and the distribution of dangerous weapons, and opposition to the (Middle East) peace process.''
But he said Iran was changing for the better, a reference to moderate President Khatami's public campaign for a ``civil society'' within the Islamic system. ``We appreciate the comments made by the president several months ago and we are exploring what the future might hold,'' Clinton said.
In January, Khatami proposed dialogue between the Iranian and American peoples but stopped short of the government-to-government contacts that Washington has demanded.
Khatami's conservative rivals, who control key levers of power including the legislature and the judiciary, have repeatedly warned against any attempt at re-establishing ties with the United States.
Washington broke relations with Iran after radical students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and kept 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
By Steve Pagani
ROME, June 26 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who travels to Tehran next week, will be the first Western head of government to visit the Islamic republic of Iran since the fall of the Shah 20 years ago, his aides said on Friday.
Prodi accepted the invitation from moderate President Mohammad Khatami after signs emerged of a new openness in Iran and clear signals that the West and Iran were inching towards the first real rapprochement since the Islamic revolution in 1979, they said.
``This is the first visit of a Western head of government since the revolution and it is a visit of great importance,'' Prodi's spokesman Ricardo Levi told a news briefing.
``The situation in Iran shows it is a country ... undergoing evolution ... The objective of the visit is to get to understand (the country),'' Levi added.
Prodi, in power for the past two years, had spoken to other Western leaders, including President Bill Clinton and European Union government heads, before embarking on the visit and would report back to them after his trip, he said.
``It will be of no surprise to any of them that this visit has been announced,'' Levi said.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright this month offered to explore new confidence-building steps with Iran aimed ultimately at establishing normal relations.
Some Iranian newspapers reacted with scepticism and hostility. Washington said it understood the resentment but would not apologise for the past.
In a key decision that drew praise from Europe, Clinton last month waived sanctions that would have kept French, Russian and Malaysian firms from carrying out a $2 billion gas deal in Iran.
Levi stressed Prodi's meetings would be of a purely political nature and there would be no economic talks, in spite of the presence of Foreign Trade Minister Augusto Fantozzi.
``This is an exclusively political visit ... There will be no discussions of an economic or commercial nature,'' Levi said.
Talks would focus mainly on Iran's ties with the West but would include developments within the EU, the launch of the euro, the Middle East and terrorism and weapons non-proliferation, his officials said.
Prodi will arrive in Tehran at about 9 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Tuesday after attending a ceremony to mark the opening of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.
He will hold his first round of talks with Vice President Hassan Habibi on Wednesday morning before meeting Khatami at about 10 a.m. (0600 GMT).
The Italian premier was also due to meet Khatami's predecessor, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, still an influential figure in Iran and currently head of the authoritative Expediency Council.
Prodi was due to receive an honorary economics degree from Tehran University but the ceremony was not yet confirmed.
After a news conference at 6.45 p.m. (1445 GMT), Prodi will attend a dinner in his honour hosted by Khatami at the presidential palace. No meetings have yet been organised for Thursday before his departure for Siena, Italy.
Asked whether Prodi would meet Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an official said: ``No visit has been scheduled.''
Prodi officials said it was notable that the invitation had also been extended to the prime minister's wife, Flavia.
``Inviting the prime minister's wife has a much greater resonance in this case than it would do on most other official visits,'' one official said, adding that the decision was yet another example of how things were slowly changing in Iran.
Prodi's trip comes four months after the ground-breaking visit by Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini, who, on his return, urged the West to support Khatami, who won a landslide election victory last year, and back his cautious approach to shaking up Iranian society while keeping conservatives at bay.
Dini left for Iran days after the EU lifted a ban on high-level contacts with Tehran following more than a year's freeze on Europe's so-called ``critical dialogue'' with Iran.
The ban was imposed after a Berlin court concluded that Iranian leaders were responsible for the 1992 killing of Kurdish dissidents in Germany. The thaw was set in motion after Khatami condemned terrorism.
Iran pleased with EU dialogue, urges new talks 12:57 p.m. Jun 27, 1998 Eastern
TEHRAN, June 27 (Reuters) - Iran said on Saturday it was satisfied with efforts by the European Union to engage in dialogue with Tehran and hoped that the two sides would resume talks soon, Iran's official news agency IRNA said.
``Foreign Ministry spokesman Mahmoud Mohammadi...expressed satisfaction with the joint efforts by Iran and the European Union...leading to a higher understanding between the EU and the Islamic Republic,'' IRNA said.
Mohammadi welcomed a new round of negotiations between the two sides in Tehran, which was expected ``in the near future.''
``Tehran welcomes the speedy start of such negotiations to help create a positive and constructive atmosphere and to build the confidence between the two sides,'' Mohammadi was quoted as saying.
Ties between Iran and Europe soured last year after a German court concluded that Iranian leaders were responsible for the 1992 killings of Kurdish dissidents in Germany. Iran denied the charge.
After the verdict, Europe suspended its policy of ``critical dialogue'' towards the Islamic republic and EU members and Iran withdrew their top envoys.
The envoys have since returned and in January the EU lifted a ban on high-level contacts with Iran.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi will travel to Iran this week in what will be the first official visit to Tehran by a European head of government since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Prodi's aides said.
French-made choppers enter Iran's oil fleet 03:09 a.m. Jun 27, 1998 Eastern
TEHRAN, June 27 (Reuters) - Two French-made helicopters are set to enter service with Iran's Oil Ministry, the first such acquisition since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a ministry official said on Saturday.
Iran's Helicopter Services Organisation, affiliated to the ministry, is to start operating two Ecureuil AS 350 B2 helicopters after an official welcoming ceremony on Sunday in the southern city of Shiraz, the official told Reuters.
``These helicopters have been bought to serve the increasing
development of oil discovery and extraction activities,'' he said.
``Their primary mission is to carry experts among Iran's oil facilities in the Gulf islands.''
Built in France and re-assembled in Iran, the first helicopters acquired by the ministry in 20 years join a fleet of 26 other craft.
The new helicopters can carry six passengers and an external cargo of up to 1,400 kg (3,000 lbs) over a distance of 310 nautical miles.
The Helicopter Services Organisation carries out on-shore and off-shore operations, search and rescue, sling lifting and evacuation missions in Iran's southern oil fields.
TEHRAN, June 27 (AFP) - Iran called on Saturday for the "speedy" launching of negotiations with the European Union (EU) to renew confidence between the two sides. "Tehran welcomes (the) speedy start of such negotiations to help create a positive and constructive atmosphere and to build the confidence between the two sides," the official IRNA news agency quoted the spokesman of the foreign ministry, Mohammad Mohammadi, as saying. The Iranian statement comes as a planned visit by the EU troika of Luxembourg, Britain and Austria has been postponed from June 20 to an as yet unspecified date. The postponement was due to "scheduling problems" but also apparent Iranian "difficulties with the level of representation" in the troika, which Tehran wants to be composed of "political leaders" rather than "bureaucrats," EU sources in Brussels said 10 days ago. EU foreign ministers gave a green light on June 8 to sending a troika delegation to Tehran to hold a "substantive dialogue." The EU delegation was to have consisted of senior officials and topics were to include human rights, terrorism, the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic, technological, environmental and energy cooperation, and cooperation in fighting drugs. The troika is made up of the last country to hold the EU presidency, Luxembourg; the present incumbent Britain; and the country due to succeed it next month, Austria. The EU's "critical dialogue" with the Islamic republic broke off in April last year after the Tehran regime was implicated by a German court in the 1992 murder of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin. The European Union agreed in March to renew links with Iran as part of a thawing in relations following the election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami in May 1997.