US blinkered over Iran tiesAs in the past quarter of century, the looming presidential election in the United States has made the Iran debate a fulcrum of presidential contest, with the Republican and Democratic candidates trying to outdo each other in Iran-bashing. Like a rehashed gourmet leftover, the Iran issue gives each candidate an opportunity to polish his image as tough on "rogue states" and international terrorism, accusing the other side of being a softy on Iran's "mad mullahs", to quote a recent editorial. The exigencies of presidential elections notwithstanding, one must of course wonder if Washington's favorite pastime vis-a-vis Iran every four years constitutes a rational foreign policy.
Indeed, there is a growing chorus of voices from America's foreign-policy experts who advocate (critical) dialogue with Iran instead of the hitherto-dominant approach of confrontation and belligerency, both in the White House and Congress. Case in point, a recent study by the influential Council on Foreign Relations concluded that in the light of Iran's importance, economically and geostrategically, the US government should seek to engage the Iranian government in dialogue as a prelude to diplomatic normalization.
Sadly, the recommendation of this policy group has coincided with the new revelations of the 9-11 Commission that some of the September 11, 2001, hijackers transited through Iran prior to their deadly mission, inflammatory information seized on by the right-wing media in the United States thirsting for another military confrontation in the Middle East. The Iranian government has responded by acknowledging that because of the difficulties of regulating the trans-border traffic at the porous Iran-Afghanistan border the news may have credibility, yet strongly denied any official complicity with the al-Qaeda terrorists, citing the latter's radical Sunni and anti-Shi'ite identity.
Still, there are lingering suspicions that certain "rogue" elements within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards may have played a role in facilitating the transit of al-Qaeda terrorists, and this suspicion alone is at present more than sufficient to torpedo any decent chance for even a mini-breakthrough in the stalemated US-Iran relations in the immediate future. In fact, the poison in the chalice of diplomatic alienation may have thickened substantially both as a result of the new allegations of Iran-al-Qaeda connections and the recent statements by the United Nations atomic agency criticizing Iran's less than full transparency on its nuclear program, representing a mild setback in Iran-European Union relations.
Thus to the pertinent question of what direction are troubled US-Iran relations heading? More tensions and more serious accusations hurled at each other, or lessening of tensions, or, perhaps, the continuing mid-level animosity and "cold war" of the present moment? Assuming, hypothetically, that the US government uncovers more evidence of Iran-al-Qaeda connections in the near future, there is no doubt that whoever is in the White House a few months from now will be rather forced to maintain the chariot of Iran-bashing, irrespective of the areas of shared interests between the two countries, eg the revived Taliban threat and the narco-traffic from Afghanistan that has grown 50 times since the US invasion of that country. Concerning the latter, since 2000, the US and Iran have been collaborating through the UN's "six plus two" initiative against the Afghanistan-led narcotics.
This is not to mention Iraq: Iran tacitly approved of the US war to dislodge the Ba'athist regime, and its explicit blessing of the postwar transitional government was most recently expressed in a message from Iran's president submitted to Iraq's new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, by Iran's diplomat in Baghdad. Iran is also preparing its case against Saddam Hussein, who was identified by the UN in 1990 as the culprit behind the bloody eight-year war with Iran. It remains to be seen if this will include the affidavit of some 60,000 living victims of Iraq's chemical attacks, who have sued the US government in Iran for its complicity with the then Iraqi government in violation of international protocols banning the sale of chemical agents used for warfare.
Of course, in the larger scheme of things, the power rivalry between an intrusive superpower bent on hegemonic domination and an assertive regional power suspicious of outside powers in the Persian Gulf's oil region constitutes the nub of present tensions between the two countries, which promise to remain for the foreseeable future with or without any breakthrough in diplomatic relations. Iranian policymakers are openly discussing the implications of the United States' military bases near Iran's borders, and some even go as far as referring to the US as Iran's "new neighbor" sharing a longer border than the US has with Canada. Such comparisons have their limitations without doubt, and the fact remains that Iran is adamant about the need for the US to depart from Iraq in the near future, based on Iran's own calculation of its national security interests. Yet with all the tangible signs pointing in the direction of a long stay by the US military in Iraq, Iran's leaders have to come to terms with the inevitable reality of the need to deal with the uninvited superpower accusing it of pretty much the same sins as that of Saddam, namely proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, links with terrorism, and dictatorship.
Consequently, the stage is set for a second Bush administration, in the case of there being one after November 4, to turn the wheels of US power against Iran, including at the UN by pushing for comprehensive sanctions on Iran for allegedly proliferating nuclear weapons under the guise of its peaceful nuclear program. Not to be outdone by the incumbent, his rival Senator John Kerry has also upped the ante against Iran, castigating President George W Bush for overlooking the "Iran threat" and promising voters to get tough on Iran if elected.
But realistically, how tough can the US get on Iran short of causing another upheaval in international relations? And how many Middle East countries have to fall to the US military might as a result of the September 11 tragedies, which may have been prevented had the Bush administration heeded the stern warnings of imminent attack by its own intelligence agencies, as aptly pointed out in the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11?
The dictates of prudent international diplomacy by both countries necessitate the need to engage in constructive dialogue, as they have been discreetly over both Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11, to water down their differences and focus on the sources of actual and potential shared or parallel interests, and to utilize the lessons of conciliation and negotiation proven successful in resolving similar international, inter-state tensions.
This, in turn, requires that US and Iranian officials distinguish those differences that preclude normalization with those that can be accepted within normal diplomatic relations. There is always the possibility that some of the differences may turn out, as a result of face-to-face dialogue, to be less divisive than hitherto thought, such as the Palestinian issue, Persian Gulf stability, and Caspian Sea oil developments. As the seasoned authors of Iran study at the Council on Foreign Relations have correctly pointed out, the durability of ill-will between the two countries is guaranteed to remain as long as they continue to shun direct dialogue.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and "Iran's Foreign Policy Since 9/11", Brown's Journal of World Affairs, co-authored with former deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, No 2, 2003.