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The Chasm Closes: The U.S. and Iran Work Toward Peace

By Richard H. Solomon and Jon B. Alterman
The Wall Street Journal Europe
August 11, 2000

The United States and Iran, two nations separated by a 20-year history of hostility, now eye each other warily across a political chasm. Despite emerging areas of shared interest, the absence of diplomatic ties makes policy dialogue between these two former antagonists a daunting challenge. How to bridge the gap? America's opening to China in the 1970s holds a number of useful lessons for today's diplomacy between the world's oldest elected government and the world's boldest Islamic republic.

Re-engagement between the U.S. and Iran would enable Washington and Tehran to coordinate policy on issues of mutual concern: Iraq, drug smuggling, instability in Afghanistan and security in the Persian Gulf, among others. It would also necessarily involve curbing destabilizing Iranian actions in the Middle East and opening the way for more foreign investment in Iran, especially in the vital petroleum sector. Both sides would benefit, as would America's European allies who share many of Washington's concerns.

But there are obstacles even to dialogue. Americans have difficulty discerning exactly who could speak authoritatively for the government of Iran if an official dialogue were to begin. While one could create an organizational chart outlining how the government of Iran is structured, one cannot create a "wiring diagram" which would explain how it works. Power is shared between President Mohammed Khatami, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, various organs of the government and para-governmental organizations. Determining the purview of any of those parties, let alone their ability to influence the actions of others, is daunting.

The closure this week of the last remaining reformist newspaper, Bahar, and Ayatollah Khamenei's quashing of parliamentary debate on a more liberal press law suggests that Iran's internal politics are in deep disarray. Until the situation becomes clearer, it will be even more difficult for Iranians to speak with one voice. Iran does not have a Mao Tse-tung, a leader with the overpowering authority to sustain a controversial policy. That is both its weakness and its strength.

In addition, our current efforts to reengage with Iran, like America's efforts with China three decades ago, put freewheeling Americans together with descendants of one of the world's oldest civilizations. Americans' assertive self-confidence seems threatening to Iranians, not only in the negotiating room, but, especially, in the world beyond diplomacy. American popular culture -- with its pop music, splashy videos and provocative web sites -- appears poised to overwhelm Iran's rich cultural heritage. Iranians need reassurance that rapprochement will not bring with it a tsunami of sudden change.

In return, Iranians need to recognize that Americans remain scarred by the images of 1979: American diplomats held hostage for 444 days in their own embassy while mobs circled in the streets outside, shaking their fists and shouting "Death to America."

Reversing the adversarial relationship between Iran and the U.S. requires a series of political decisions in both Tehran and Washington. Such was the case with China in the early 1970s. We often forget the role of internal politics in authoritarian states. We reason that in the absence of voters who can turn them out of office, it is easy for a leadership to make bold and sudden moves.

But authoritarian rulers need to generate their own form of internal political support, and moves to reverse adverse relations with a former enemy often require deft political actions. Mao's opening to the U.S. rocked the foundations of the Chinese communist leadership in the early 1970s, and is thought to have played a role in Lin Biao's coup attempt against him and the factionalism of the Gang of Four.

America's internal politics will have to be addressed as well. There are aspects of Iran's international behavior which are deeply offensive to Americans, including but not limited to support for so-called "liberation movements" that carry out armed attacks on civilians, and perhaps on American military installations as well.

In addition, the recently concluded trial in Shiraz of 13 Jews accused of espionage had all the trappings of a kangaroo court. While Iranian interlocutors stress that none of those convicted face the death penalty, the trial raises troubling images of innocent civilians facing persecution because of their religious beliefs. One goal of any official dialogue with Tehran will be to address Iranian activities in these areas.

Breaking out of a cycle of distrust and confrontation often begins in small ways. China's "ping-pong diplomacy" of the early 1970s opened American eyes to the non-threatening aspects of the People's Republic and signaled the Chinese leadership's interest in overcoming the confrontation. Iranian-American soccer and wrestling matches may have a similar effect. Iranian films are beginning to attract small, mostly intellectual, audiences in the United States. President Khatami's call to begin a "dialogue of civilizations" encourages scholarly interaction between Iran and the West. Importantly, it puts Iran's culture on an equal footing with Western culture, thus helping to build Iranian domestic support for Khatami's further opening to America.

A reinforcing process is the establishment of so-called "Track II" dialogues, which bring together scholars and former government officials with access to the political and governmental leaders in their own countries. Such dialogues have been taking place between the U.S. and Iran for more than a decade, and have picked up steam in the last three years. The protection that the Iranian government extends to Iranians who participate in these dialogues is an important sign of the Tehran government's seriousness about improving relations.

Meetings are most often held on the neutral ground of Europe, although a handful of individuals travel to the opposite capital every year. Something on the order of a half-dozen formal exchanges are occurring annually, often with broad European participation so that the U.S.-Iranian character of the event is obscured.

One of the writers of this article, Mr. Alterman, has participated in such dialogues, in Europe, Iran, and the U.S. Like many conferences, they are held in quasi-institutional settings and combine formal meetings with social events. What distinguishes such meetings is the seriousness with which participants seek to understand their counterparts, while at the same time ensuring they do not look too eager. It is a delicate dance with many possibilities for missteps.

But there are dangers in Track II dialogues. In particular, participants and sponsors tend to be moderates oriented toward reconciliation, and they can give a misleading impression of conditions in their own country or understate the forces of opposition.

We need to take a long view toward our relations with Iran, realizing that efforts to promote dialogue may well encounter temporary setbacks. We must also test the intentions, commitment, and authority of our interlocutors. While many Iranians do not realize it, the humiliation of former National Security Adviser Robert C. MacFarlane's secret and futile trip to Iran in May 1986 is burned in many American officials' minds. Through all of this, Americans and Iranians must try to build mutual confidence gradually, while at the same time continually assessing the political prospects at home and in Iran for a different kind of relationship.

Mr. Solomon, a former director of policy planning and assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department, is president of the United States Institute of Peace. Mr. Alterman is a Middle East specialist at the Institute.


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