America and Iran need to talk

Posted in Broader Middle East , Iran , Asia | 13-Feb-04 | Author: James Goodby

and Fred Hill

U.S. diplomacy

WASHINGTON On the 25th anniversary of the birth of its Islamic Republic, Iran is in turmoil.

Governing institutions are close to paralysis at every level. The reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami is struggling to maintain its legitimacy after the hard-line Guardian Council sabotaged the forthcoming parliamentary elections by disqualifying thousands of candidates.

The president's brother has declared that his party will boycott the elections. Many cabinet ministers and provincial governors have vowed to resign. Astonishingly, the Guardian Council has ignored a request by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to back down.

This is a major setback for the millions of Iranians who have yearned to express themselves more openly, to see genuine democratic reforms, to revive their country's stagnant economy and to re-enter world politics. But it will be a temporary reversal. A huge, well-educated and increasingly frustrated younger generation is eventually going to gain power in some form, and they are likely to push the conservative clerics aside in the not too distant future.

The current political test of wills in Iran has overshadowed a timely, low-key effort by the Bush administration to reopen contacts with Iran's leaders. Putting aside the clumsy characterization of Iran as part of an "axis of evil," senior leaders set the stage for a shift in policy several months ago. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told a Senate committee in November that the administration was prepared to engage in limited discussions and said it is no longer U.S. policy to force "regime change."

Shortly after the Bam earthquake, the administration swept aside longstanding restrictions and sent rescue teams and humanitarian relief to Iran. Secretary of State Colin Powell broached the possibility of direct talks. And despite a chilly response from Iran's top leaders, the outreach is continuing. Just this week, the administration endorsed a visit to Iran by congressional staff members.

While the current political confrontation demands patience and finesse, the fact that Iran has given Washington's recent overtures the cold shoulder should not discourage renewed efforts to bring about a substantial increase in direct dialogue between the two nations, even well short of rapprochement. A new and candid, if not necessarily congenial, relationship would be mutually beneficial to both countries in several strategic respects, ranging from stability in Iraq to the fight against nuclear proliferation and terrorism to Iran's own desire to end its international isolation.

The potential benefits of direct U.S.-$ Iran dialogue outweigh the risks. For all the heated rhetoric and genuinely serious major differences dating back to the 1979 hostage crisis and the Iranian regime's support for terrorism, there is a growing convergence of interests between the United States and Iran today.

Shiite Muslim Iran hardly wants chaos in Iraq, whose majority Shiite population was brutally repressed for decades by Saddam Hussein and whose leaders have been relatively restrained in the face of the U.S.-led occupation. Tehran also seeks a stable Afghanistan, and cooperated with the U.S. attack on the Taliban, who had murdered Iranian diplomats. Iran's recent decision, approved by the clerical leaders, to accept intrusive international inspections of its nuclear energy plants and suspend its efforts to enrich uranium reflects an internal shift toward pragmatic behavior.

Many hurdles stand in the way of a genuine rapprochement between the United States and Iran, including complex legal problems dating from the 1979 embassy takeover. Yet the beginnings of a strategic course correction are in place; to make it real, what is now needed is bold, consistent and creative diplomacy.

At a time when the Bush administration needs to stabilize Iraq and turn over sovereignty to an untested government, to put new life into the Middle East peace process, and to make progress in the war against terrorism, what better way than to deal directly with a conflicted but proud nation that also will have a great deal to say about what happens in the region for a long time to come?

No one is suggesting that President George W. Bush should add Tehran to his 2004 travel plans. But once the current political crisis in Iran calms down, a quiet trip by a senior U.S. figure, such as Powell or Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, to talk candidly about respective interests and objectives, could go a long way toward improving relations with Iran, a major regional power next door to two war zones. The world would welcome such an overture.

James Goodby, a former U.S. ambassador to Finland and chief negotiator for cooperative threat reduction in the Clinton administration, is affiliated with the Brookings Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fred Hill, who reported on the Iranian revolution in 1979 for The Baltimore Sun, works for the State Department. The views in this article are his own and are not an expression of official policy.