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From confrontation to modus vivendi?
Iran-U.S. relations 19 years after the hostage crisis

November 4, 1998
The Iranian

Lecture by Hooshang Amirahmadi, Rutgers University professor and president of the American-Iranian Council at the Graduate Institute for Strategic and International Security Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, October 12-13, 1998:

I wish to begin with the proposition that U.S.-Iran relations have entered into an irreversible normalization process: the question is no longer if but when.

As many of you know, several openings in the past were reversed leading to an exacerbation of the spiral conflict between the two governments. We are of course in the beginning of a very protracted process and surprises of a positive or negative consequence for the relations in both sides, in the side of Iran in particular, should not be discounted. Nonetheless, I believe, the future will witness more reduction in tension between the two countries. Where do we stand in the normalization process is hard to tell as contradictory signals and policies in both sides make a determination complicated.

We are certainly moving away from confrontation and mutual demonization that characterized relations between the two governments, toward remission and mutual recognition. In this respect, the most important development has been a change of tone and a willingness to listen and reciprocate, a development I have called "poetry reading". As a consequence, the wall of mistrust is being slowly demolished though both sides continue to remain suspicious of each other's intention. The poems in the U.S. side include a few masterpieces: visa relaxation even for the Iranian diplomats, recognition of the "Islamic Revolution" as a sustainable reality (by the Secretary Albright in her Iran policy speech where she also offered Iran to work with the U.S. in drawing a "road map" for political dialogue and eventual normalization of relations), granting of a D'Amato Act waiver to Total, Petronas and Gazprom, and of course the "cultural exchanges" that have followed the nice words the two presidents had to say about the two peoples and their civilizations.

Meanwhile, important personalities in the Congress and beyond (such as Lee Hamilton and James Baker) have spoken against sanctions and in favor of a dialogue with Iran, and the U.S. has dropped the human rights abuse charges against Iran and has praised Tehran for its positive role in narcotics traffic control and regional cooperation. Iran and the U.S. are now working together, within the UN Six Plus Two framework, for a resolution to the Afghanistan crisis. Secretary Albright was disappointed that Dr. Kharazi did not attend the UN-arranged meeting in New York City in September but instead sent his deputy, Dr. Javad Zarif. Nonetheless, to show its seriousness for dialogue with Iran, the Clinton Administration sent several of its top-ranking foreign policy decision-makers to listen to Dr. Kharazi when he spoke at the Asia Society in New York City a few days later on 28 September, 1998. They included Martin Indyk, the architect of dual containment policy, Thomas Pikering and David Welch.

The Iranian poetry reading of course began with President Khatami's CNN interview in which he not only expressed regret for the hostage episode but went so far as to equate the purposes of the American and Islamic revolutions. Note that till then, the Islamic leaders in Iran had claimed that their movement was diametrically opposed to anything Western. In the mean time, the official Iran has stopped such internationally unacceptable behaviors as "U.S. flag-burning" and "down with the U.S." slogan. Instead, Iran has done its best to be a good host to Americans visiting the country, American sportsmen in particular. Speeches by President Khatami at the Summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Tehran last year and at the UN General Assembly this year (September 1998) were equally hospitable to many of Iran's adversaries including the United States. President Khatami's call for a dialogue among civilizations and his policy of reducing tensions with adversaries are received enthusiastically by the West and Iran's neighbors.

Yet, the most significant compromises on the Iranian side have included renouncing international terrorism and distancing itself from the Fetva against Mr. Rushdie, accepting the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people in the peace negotiations (President Khatami is said to have sent a message for President Clinton on this through Yaser Arafat following OIC meeting), and offering to cooperate with the U.S. on narcotics traffic control, weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. The offer of cooperation was made by Dr. Kharazi in his speech responding to Secretary Albright. On nuclear matter, Iran has tried to reassure the U.S. and Israel, thus far unsuccessfully, that it has no nuclear ambitions, that it will accept any degree of international monitoring, that it supports a nuclear-free Middle East, that it will remain an active and loyal member of NPT and other international treaties, and that it is ready to listen to proposals from the U.S. on a resolution to the nuclear dispute.

I call these developments "poetry reading" because while very significant, they do not signify a policy change and have not led to a much-needed political dialogue in which outstanding claims between the two governments are placed on a negotiation table and resolved. The U.S. continues its policies of economic sanctions and political isolation of Iran as it considers Iran a world leader in international terrorism, alleges that Tehran is building an offensive non-conventional military capability including weapons of mass destruction and missiles, and accuses Iran of undermining the Arab-Israeli peace process. To address these issues, the Clinton Administration has proposed a "roadmap" approach that Iran says it cannot accept for the time being. In its part, Iran accuses the U.S. of continuing a containment policy that, to use Dr. Kharazi's charges, aims to destroy the country's prospect for economic development and political stability.

From Iran's perspective, Washington's Iran policy reflects a Cold War mindset and has become a hostage of Tel Aviv, and that the Jewish lobby in the U.S. tends to control the Congress with whom a weakened Clinton Administration cannot reach a consensus regarding its Iran policy. Iran sees in the recent U.S. "opening" to Iran a built-in contradiction: as more carrots are offered even more sticks are added to the policy basket. Examples include introduction of Radio Free Iran, undeclared support for the Taliban, and a "conspiracy" against oil prices. What Iran wishes to see U.S. do instead is to take a symbolic step in freeing Iranian assets, drop U.S. objection to constructing oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia and the Caucasus through Iran, and lift economic sanctions, perhaps in this same order. Iran has always said that it will reciprocate.

While both sides are willing to make peace neither side wishes to take the first significant step. Iran suspects both Washington's intention and ability to resolve its problems with Tehran on the basis of mutual respect and interest. Washington, in turn, does not trust Iran's "tension-reducing" policy (which Washington considers designed to improve Iran's relations with Europe and the neighbors rather that with the U.S.), and doubts that President Khatami is capable of making the final decision on U.S.-Iran relations. The hard liners, in Washington's view, are opposed to normalization of relations and their ultimate aim is to disappoint President Khatami rather than help him.

The truth is, however, somewhere in between. Washington has moved away from passively endorsing dialogue with Iran to actively pursuing it. The containment policy has become increasingly refocused toward Iraq. The fact is, the ill-conceived assumptions of the policy about Iran has made it untenable. It has increasingly become obvious that Iran cannot be isolated, that Iran is strategically and economically important, and that a stronger Iran is better for regional stability than a weaker one. Economic sanctions are under attack and pressure on the Clinton Administration from the American oil companies and a larger coalition of businesses called the USA-Engage has been increasing exponentially. The power of the coalition would noticeably rise should the military-industrial sector decide to join.

More importantly, the Iran alternative for the oil and gas transport from the Caspian basin in a reduced oil-price situation has become more attractive to American companies than the so-called East-West axis that the U.S. has been pursuing. The U.S. interest in independent development of the states in Central Asia and Caucasus is an additional incentive for the U.S. to mend relations with Iran. The rising geopolitical ambitions of the Russian Federation and its sustained interest in dominating the "near abroad", the Chinese growing interest and incursion in the oil regions, particularly the Central Asian fields, and the continuing problems with the Middle East peace process, Iraq, Afghanistan and other troubled spots in the region are making the U.S. ever more serious to close gap with Iran.

More significantly, the American public has shown a willingness to pardon Iran for its anti-American policies and actions in the past and President Clinton is said to be impressed with President Khatami. A panel discussion between a former American captive and his Iranian captor last July (1998), organize by the assistance of American-Iranian Council, led to reconciliation and mutual recognition. All these and other developments have made and will make the U.S. stay the present course of normalization of relations with Iran. Iran has even more reasons to open-up to the U.S.. President Khatami was elected on a platform of change, and foreign policy including U.S.-Iran relations, cannot be excluded from that public purpose. While he has emphasized domestic political reform, lack of elite consensus on that issue has pushed President Khatami increasingly in the direction of activism in foreign policy where tension-reduction has been a key purpose.

Another impetus for the new proactive foreign policy came from the successful 1997 Tehran Summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference. Yet, Iran may not reduce tension in its international relations unless relations with the U.S. are normalized. There is another reason why President Khatami needs the U.S.: Iranian economy is in a free-falling state and with the oil prices in decline, the economy can become a cause of his ultimate failure or success as he struggles with his conservative rivals. Of the three main comparative and competitive advantages that Iran offers the world, geography, oil and gas, and a talented workforce, the first two are directly neutralized by the U.S. and the third remains underutilized because of a lack of vision for the country's future.

A more fundamental reason Iran should want to stay the present course of normalizing relations with the U.S. has to do with the fact that even the conservatives want to reduce tension with the U.S.. They may not be opposed to even establishing relations if domestic politics were to resolve in their favor. A source of this conservative willingness is the fundamental changes that have swept the country in the last 10 years. While the institution of rouhaniyat (the religious institution) and their traditional supporters have increasingly weakened, the forces of nationalism and modernization have become strengthened. Iranian revolutionaries have become pragmatic as the revolution has matured.

Meanwhile, the emerging young generations are against isolation and are calling for integration and democratic changes. Finally, it is important to note that while Iran speaks of a people-to-people diplomacy and cultural exchanges with the U.S., the reality is somewhat different: that in Iran side only government is actively involved! That is, the U.S.-Iran dialogue is already advanced to the level of government in Iran side while in the U.S. side, semi-governmental institutions, even, at times governmental ones, if not directly, indirectly are involved. As this continues, it is advisable for both sides to not exclude the so-called opposing forces. A better strategy is rather to call for the inclusion of conservatives in Iran and the Jewish lobby in the U.S.

Over the last several years, the main enemy of the U.S.-Iran relations has been in the process, not principles. The two sides have no outstanding non-negotiable issues among them; they have ever tended to make procedural issues into non-negotiable principles. For the U.S. and Iran it is advisable to work hard to convert the non-converted. Both sides must also realize that the roles of their Soccer Game last June (1998) does not necessarily apply to their eventual diplomatic negotiations: here most often than not the ball is simultaneously in both courts. Only then a more global process of normalization will develop, guaranteeing eventual success.

Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form