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The time is now
A new beginning in Iran-U.S. relations

By Hooshang Amirahmadi
December 22, 2000
The Iranian

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 steps.

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 constructive partner.

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 sectors.

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 vision.


Hooshang Amirahmadi, a Rutgers Universtiy professor, is the president of the American Iranian Council.

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