Cohen: The other Iran

Posted in United States , Iran | 02-Feb-09 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

The city of Teheran.

TEHRAN: At one of the large embassies offering islands of peace from the gridlocked, grinding Iranian capital, a Western diplomat said this of U.S. and allied policy toward Iran: "You could argue that our policy has not yet failed."

That would be the most charitable view. But it is failing. Where Iran had a handful of centrifuges enriching uranium four years ago, it now has at least 5,000. With its enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan removed by U.S. military force, it has extended its regional influence.

This city, whose real-estate boom has rivaled Manhattan's in recent years, is still awash in cash from the giddy oil price season. Those billions, even ebbing, equal confidence. The Iranian Revolution, now at its 30th anniversary, has recharged its batteries on a global wave of Bush-inspired, Gaza-cemented, anti-Western sentiment.

It's time to think again, not merely to re-calibrate old formulas, in order to end the three-decade impasse in U.S.-Iranian ties, a breakdown of huge cost and menace. A non-relationship has locked itself in stereotypes, the fruit of estrangement, as U.S. threats ("the military option must be kept on the table") and demands (stop the centrifuges) meet a wall of Iranian pride.

One place to begin that reflection might be in the southern stretches of Tehran, where I was the other day on the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's triumphant return from France. I'd been at an airport ceremony, featuring a rousing orchestra and a kitschy reproduction of the Air France jumbo jet that brought him home, and now found myself surrounded by graves near the Khomeini shrine.

These graves, often adorned with wrenching photographs of 16-year-olds, stretch away, hundreds of thousands of them, mostly victims - or martyrs as they are called here - of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Their deaths followed the 1978-79 revolutionary violence. Iran bled for a decade.

The psychological impact of this trauma is still palpable. Iranians don't want to bleed again; they want to get ahead. In this, they resemble the post-Cultural Revolution Chinese.

Pragmatism reigns for all the inflammatory official rhetoric. Money, education and opportunity drive people. Years of mayhem in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan have concentrated Iranian minds: Who needs that?

"Overthrowing regimes is no longer on the agenda," Mohammad Atrianfar, the former editor of a reformist magazine shut down by the government, told me. "Reform, yes, upheaval, no."

Young people - and well over half the population is under 30 - may want a freer press or freer dress. But cell phones, widespread Internet access and satellite TV (government restrictions are as easily circumvented as Western sanctions) sap confrontational adrenalin. The Islamic revolution has proved resilient in part because of its flexibility.

In a land of such competing currents, the United States has focused on one: Iran as an expansionist power. Iran's political constellation includes those who have given past support to terrorist organizations. But an American myopia has led policy makers to underestimate the social, psychological and political forces for pragmatism, compromise and stability. Iran has not waged a war of aggression for a very long time.

Tehran shares many American interests. It favors a democratic Iraq because that will be a Shiite-governed Iraq, and a unified Iraq stable enough for pilgrims to flock to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. It opposes Taliban redux in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda's Sunni fanaticism. Its democracy is flawed but by Middle Eastern standards vibrant. Both words in its self-description - Islamic Republic - count.

These common interests and the long misreading of Iranian priorities demand an entirely new approach from President Obama. The radical Bush presidency produced a radical Iranian response. Any Western visitor here is soon reminded that while modern Iraq was sketched on a 20th-century map, Persia has been around for millennia. Its pride requires treatment as an equal.

To suggest, as a recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington did, that Obama must "begin augmenting the military lever" to complement intensified diplomacy is to recommend digging deeper into failure.

Blinking is never pleasant but can be shrewd. America and its allies should drop their insistence that enrichment at Natanz cease before talks begin (Iran could always restart enrichment anyway). Obama should also say that any military threat has moved under the table in the name of restoring dialogue. These two steps would place the onus on the Iranian regime.

Can revolutionary Iran live without "Death to America?" Powerful hard-line Iranian factions think not, but I'm with the majority of Iranians who believe their Islamic Republic can coexist with a functioning U.S. relationship.

Obama should do five other things. Address his opening to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, because he decides. State that America is not in the Iranian regime-change business. Act soon rather than wait for the Iranian presidential elections in June: Khamenei will still be around after them. Begin with small steps that build trust. Treat the nuclear issue within the whole range of U.S.-Iranian relations, rather than as its distorting focus.