The time is now
A new beginning in Iran-U.S. relations
By Hooshang Amirahmadi
December 22, 2000
Two significant developments have increased Iran's stature in the world,
both of which will directly and positively affect U.S.-Iran relations.
One is the indigenous democratic movement; the other is the emergence of
a proactive Iranian diplomacy. These new developments are rock solid as
they are based on structural changes in the Iranian society and developments
globally. While the ongoing contest over the pace and extent of domestic
reforms is expected to dominate the national agenda in the immediate future,
foreign policy will increasingly assert its significance for the Islamic
Republic. No wonder that President Mohammad Khatami has made "dialogue
among civilizations" and "detente" the cornerstones of his
proactive foreign policy.
Nowhere Iran's proactive policy is more evident than in its deepening
ties to the key Muslim nations of the Middle East, Caucasus and the Central
Asia. Iran is also solidifying relations with Europe, China, Japan and
Russia. The Iranian government is now working to extend its policy of detente
to the United States as well. Ambassador Hadi Nejad Hosseinian told the
American Iranian Council's conference last March that the "underlying
theme of Iran's foreign policy is to reduce tension, promote friendship,
international cooperation and peaceful coexistence, and in this context
the United States is no exception."
The United States has taken a strong interest in the Iranian reform
and new foreign policy. At the March 17 conference, Secretary Madeline
Albright offered the United States' most straightforward criticism to date
of the past U.S. policy toward Iran. She acknowledged that the CIA-engineered
coup in 1953 "was clearly a setback for Iran's political development,"
and that for a quarter century the United States gave sustained backing
to the Shah's regime, who "brutally suppressed political dissent."
She also observed that even in recent years, the U.S. support for Iraq
during its conflict with Iran was "regrettably shortsighted."
Secretary Albright indicated that the Administration wished to begin an
official dialogue with the Iranian government without any preconditions.
President Khatami, speaking to the German Television during his July
trip to that country, praised Secretary Albright's March 17 speech and
said that a "new turn" has taken place in Iran's relations with
the United States. He then went on to say that: "If the United States
now lets this admission be followed by deeds, and tries through practical
politics to make amend for the past, then we can expect our two countries
to enjoy good relations." In a follow up interview with the German
magazine Spiegel that July, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi also
underscored the fact that Iran could indeed have a dialogue with the United
States if the U.S. government was to take a few more practical and significant
Further signs of Iran's readiness for resolving its problems with the
U.S. came in late August and September. Speaker Mehdi Karroubi and several
other Iranian Majlis deputies attended an AIC-organized event at Metropolitan
Museum of Arts on August 30 where they shook hands with and spoke to several
American Congressmen, the first in 22 years. Then President Khatami arrived
in New York City where, with prior arrangements, he reciprocated speech
attendance with President Bill Clinton at the United Nation's Millennium
Summit on September 6. The day before, Secretary Albright had changed her
schedule to attend President Khatami's speech on dialogue among civilizations.
Two weeks later, Foreign Minister Kharrazi and Secretary Albright, for
the first time, attended the UN-sponsored 6+2 meeting on Afghanistan.
Besides the difficulty of justifying the mutually sensational relations
that have prevailed between Washington and Tehran in the last 22 years,
the expanding arena of their mutual interests has created new urgencies
for a more rational relationship. Both governments have a strong interest
in stabilizing the Middle Eastern situation and preventing further Iraqi
aggression. In the ongoing fight against drug traffickers, U.S.-Iranian
cooperation can only benefit both nations. The business in both countries
would benefit from free interaction, especially in the highly profitable
fields of oil and information technology. They also have a common interest
in ending the conflict in Afghanistan and assist in free and independent
development of the states in the Caucasus and the Central Asia.
More importantly, the two governments have begun to develop positive
views of each other's potentials and intentions. Recently, Secretary Albright
elevated Iran's position from the demonizing concept of "a rogue nation"
to a still less productive term of "a nation of concern." More
importantly, last February President Clinton said on CNN that, "one
of the best things we could do for the long-term peace and health of the
Middle East and, indeed, much of the rest of the world is to have a constructive
partnership with Iran."
These are highly significant words and I believe they were taken very
seriously in Tehran. In the past, while American officials had stressed
Iran's economic and strategic significance, this was often done to underscore
its potential for aggression. The presumption that "a weaker Iran
is the best Iran" for the peace and stability in its region was the
basis of the "dual containment" policy. The U.S. now seems ready
to accept the fact borne by history that a stronger Iran is indeed a more
If both governments have common interests and are so willing to make
symbolic and substantive gesture toward each other, then what prevents
them from establishing relations or entering into official dialogue? Why
would in particular Iran insist, in President Khatami's words, that "the
key to solving them [problems between the two countries] lies solely in
the hands of the United States"?
The obstacle seems to have several interrelated dimensions. For example,
the problems are quite serious. There is little mutual trust and respect,
both sides have unrealistic expectations from each other, and the proposed
approaches are inappropriate, including the "road map" and "direct
talk at authoritative level." The two sides, however, place different
emphasis on these obstacles. For example, as Secretary Albright noted at
the March 17 conference, "The United States imposed sanctions against
Iran because of our concerns about proliferation, and because the authorities
exercising control in Tehran financed and supported terrorist groups, including
those violently opposed to the Middle East peace process."
She went on to state that "Until these policies change, fully normal
ties between our governments will not be possible, and our principal sanctions
will remain." In contrast, Ambassador Nejad Hosseinian told the audience
at the same conference that the U.S. concerns, as well as those of Iran,
could have been negotiated if "a normalized situation devoid of pressure,
sanctions, allegations and grandstanding" could have been fostered
between the two governments.
A different problem is that instead of emphasizing their common ground,
the two governments have focused on the problems standing between them.
This approach is then further complicated by a "dialogue" approach
in the absence of "a normalized situation," including diplomatic
relations. As Secretary Cyrus Vance, AIC's Honorary Chairman, has said,
"Lack of diplomatic relations, often between countries at conflict,
even at war, is the abnormal, not the norm."
The current "cultural exchange" is also strained because of
the humiliating "fingerprinting" of the Iranian nationals at
the American airports. While the slow track is reaching a deadlock, the
road toward a fast track is blocked on both sides because of factional
conflicts and U.S.' refusal to deal with the leadership in Tehran with
the highest authority. Yet, at least in Iran side, the fast track is the
only realistic approach to normalizing relations between the two governments.
But before negotiations for diplomatic relations can start, the parties
must reciprocate a few significant compromises. On the U.S. side, the Administration
must better package its Iran policy and make it both more transparent and
attractive. Piecemeal, symbolic and ambiguous measure will not attract
Iran to the negotiation table. The Administration should clearly and unequivocally
state that it wants diplomatic relations with Iran. The U.S. must also
work on two tracks: the people and the government. As a public relations
gesture, the U.S. should remove fingerprinting regulation and allow the
Iran Air to fly to New York.
The offer to the Iranian government, not any particular faction, should
include: dropping U.S. opposition to the Caspian pipeline routes through
Iran, resolving the Iranian assets issue, and allowing American businesses
to spend up to the $20,000 limit that their non-U.S. competitors are allowed
to spend. The U.S. government should also support Iran's participation
in international organizations, Asia Development Bank and World Trade Organization
in particular, and allow investment in Iran's environment and education
It is almost certain that these U.S. measures will make Iran reciprocate
significantly and proportionately. One expected gesture from Tehran will
be to also unequivocally state its readiness for normalization of relations.
The Iranian government can also accept direct U.S. assistance in its fight
against drug traffickers. But Iran will be also forced to broaden its perspective
of the United States and its concerns. Fight against terrorism, peace in
the Middle East, and confidence building concerning the nuclear matter
can be coordinated in the best interest of the two nations.
There are other pressure points for Iran. While the country is rich
in oil and gas, geography, human resources, and social capital, it lives
in a dangerous neighborhood. A constructive partnership with the U.S.,
given Iran's vast strategic potentials, will make Iran a natural "pivotal"
or "anchor" state for regional peace and development. Relations
with the U.S. can also benefit the Iranian economy given the advanced American
technologies and vast financial sources.
What is even more significant is the fact that Iran has increasingly
realized the value of constructive participation in international organizations.
Iran is now an active participant in a multitude of bilateral and multilateral,
regional and global, organizations and conventions. The United States and
Iran can and should cooperate on issues of mutual concern and interest
within and outside of these institutions. The good news is that Tehran
and the Iranian public have come to increasingly realize that working with
the U.S. will mean recognizing its global interests and leadership.
The United States should reciprocate by openly acknowledging and promoting
the legitimate regional interests and role of Iran. The key point to stress
is that we cannot be complacent about recent positive changes in U.S.-Iran
relations and cannot allow the past to determine the future. We need a
leap of faith and the times call for a new beginning informed by a new
Hooshang Amirahmadi, a Rutgers Universtiy professor, is the president
of the American Iranian Council.