Iran may be primed for reconciliation

Posted in Iran , Broader Middle East | 05-Jan-04 | Author: Ray Takeyh| Source: International Herald Tribune

Grappling with U.S. power

President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami
WASHINGTON - Despite the refusal of the Iranian government to receive a relief delegation led by Senator Elizabeth Dole, there are signals that Iran is far more ready than in the past for U.S. moves toward rapprochement.

The earthquake that destroyed the historic city of Bam has established an opening for improvement of relations between the two nations, and the United States should be careful to project respectful receptivity. Behind the help that America quickly delivered to Iran and the expressions of concern it sent, a path is open for diplomats to follow. Over the past two years a perceptible change has occurred in Iran's attitudes toward the wider world. For the first time the clerical establishment appears willing to reach an accommodation on thorny issues including terrorism and the future of Iraq. The Bush administration has the unique opportunity to end more than two decades of enmity.

Though it rejected the Dole visit, Iran showed unusual gratitude and pragmatism to the other U.S. responses to the earthquake - prompt assistance and soothing words from Secretary of State Colin Powell. The powerful former president Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani speculated on the possibility of a thaw, claiming, "I'm not sure, but signs indicate that." One of Iran's leading reformers, the deputy speaker of the Parliament (and brother of the president), Mohammed Reza Khatami, went even further, stressing, "We're evaluating the American government's positive behavior, and I'm sure that good will will be answered with good will."

Iran has been re-evaluating its relationship with the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks. The massive projection of U.S. power in Iraq and Afghanistan shattered old taboos and created a climate for moderation. Tehran's cooperation with international nuclear protocols is a significant indicator of the mullahs' new thinking. A consensus is forming among reformers and conservatives who understand that Iran must come to terms with the United States on issues of common concern.

The most obvious interest the two countries share is in a stable Iraq. But even on terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there is promise for an end to the old belligerence.

In recent months Tehran has been sending signals to the United States that it is hoping to avoid conflict over Iraq. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has dismissed the notion that Iran will seek to export its revolution to the chaotic scene in Iraq, saying, "No Iranian official has suggested the formation of an Iranian-style government in Iraq." And the secretary of Iran's National Security Council, Hasan Rowhani, was insistent on this point: "Tehran does not want confrontation and friction with America over Iraq."

A dialogue in which Washington can assure Iran that its legitimate interests in postwar Iraq will be taken into account can go a long way to dispel Iranian suspicion. Both sides have an interest in stabilization of Iraq and ensuring its territorial integrity.

Among the most entrenched Iranian positions is hostility to Israel and any negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but even on that issue, competing interests are beginning to erode the old militancy. Iran's rhetoric may be laced with invectives against the peace process, but it would be unwilling to obstruct a peace treaty that enjoyed the support of the Palestinians and the Arab states. "We do not intend to impose our views on others or stand in their way," President Muhammad Khatami said.

Iran is increasingly recognizing that its interests in the Middle East and its relations with Arab states outweigh a lonely struggle against peace talks.

The price of supporting anti-Israeli forces like Hezbollah is gradually becoming too costly for Iran in the age of America's war on terrorism. Iranian leaders who previously sought to instigate violence by Hezbollah are now urging it to behave with restraint. In a recent trip to Beirut, Khatami echoed this theme. "We appeal to Lebanon, as a country and society, to be cautious," he said. As the Bush administration contemplates the future of the Middle East, it should meet the new Iranian pragmatism with a measure of flexibility.

The writer is a professor of national security studies and director of studies at the Near East and South Asia Center, National Defense University. This is a personal comment.