After twenty years of harsh confrontation, we may at last be reaching a strategic turning point in our relations with Iran. Both sides are weary of demonization. Even more important, Tehran and Washington both now recognize that each side is paying an ever steeper price for prolonging the alienation. Iran measures the cost in terms of the economic pain of sanctions, its inability to develop its own oil industry, the obstacles to participating more fully in the development of Caspian oil, and its own relative international isolation. The United States in turn has lost the support of most of its allies on its Iran policy, while punitive U.S. sanctions upon allies now hinder cooperation in many other areas of broad strategic interest in the region. American oil companies too are losing out on participation in developing Iran's energy sector, and U.S. geopolitical goals are stymied in the region by the intractable reality of Iran's geographical presence athwart all key lines of communication across Central Asia.
Both sides have lists of grievances that must be dealt with. On the Iranian side several concrete demands exist, including an end to U.S. congressional calls and funding for the overthrow of the Iranian regime (no longer U.S. official policy anyway), unfreezing of several billion dollars’ worth of Iranian frozen assets from arms purchases paid for by the shah but never delivered to the Islamic Republic, and above all an end to U.S. sanctions on Iran, including blockage of all energy routes through Iran. These are all concrete issues that could be dealt with fairly readily if the right atmosphere of growing confidence and broadened communication can emerge down the road. What is much more important than these concrete grievances - and far more complex to deal with - are Iran's broader strategic concerns, not readily convertible into negotiating points, that relate to broader U.S. goals and presence in the region.
Washington boils its own grievances down into three well-known areas: Iran's support for international terrorism, its opposition to the U.S. sponsored Middle East peace process, and Iran's quest for weapons of mass destruction. While seeming quite straightforward and explicit, they are in fact a complex mixture of fact, semi-fact and much politically convenient but- quite selective interpretation of reality. As such they are subject to multiple interpretation, making it hard for the parties to reach agreement.
On the face of it, Tehran and Washington are on a collision course, pursuing conflicting and mutually incompatible goals for the region that cannot simply be "negotiated away" in a diplomatic settlement. Each state has been determined to negate the presence of the other in the region. But if the character of such basic confrontationalism can begin to be altered, the conflicting goals may seem less mutually exclusive. The basic reality is that Tehran, at least until relatively recently, has viewed the United States as implacably hostile to the Islamic Republic. Many of Iran's policies have been predicated on this assumption, making it a partially self fulfilling prophesy. Tehran's active opposition to the Middle East peace process, making them often "more pro Palestinian than the Palestinians," above all reflects Iran's feeling that it is under strategic siege. Thus it seeks to thwart the peace process precisely because it is the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. If the confrontational nature of the overall bilateral relationship were to change, the salience of the peace process in Tehran's eyes would be markedly diminished. Iran has shown itself capable of eminently cold and pragmatic self interest, rising above Islamist ideology on countless other international issues - Armenia, Azerbaijan. Iraq, Tajikistan, Chechnya - why not on Israel? Future Iranian opposition to the moribund peace process may likely be limited to the rhetorical level. This, Washington now, concedes, would be acceptable, however undesirable.
Iran's quest for weapons of mass destruction is a tougher issue. First, the threat evoked by such weapons has more to do with the character of a state's leadership, ideology and intentions than with the hardware itself - witness the relatively nonthreatening nature of Russian nukes today as opposed to Soviet nukes yesterday. Thus a change in the character of the regime changes considerably the degree of anxiety over its weaponry. Second, more objective analysis shows that Tehran's current rearmament efforts are actually far more modest than those pursued by the shah, or by Iraq and Saudi Arabia today. Iran, as the largest geopolitical power in the Gulf, will inevitably arm itself to a level it deems necessary and affordable, especially after being attacked and ultimately defeated by a missile-rich Iraq in the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War. Of course it is in the interests of the entire region to limit proliferation of strategic weapons in all states including Israel. But even more important is to bring about changes in Iranian attitudes, policies and behavior affecting the use of such weapons. Regrettably, weapons of mass destruction over the longer range will not be easily denied to any aspiring power in the region including Iraq and eventually Turkey and Egypt. In short, there will not be a fully satisfactory answer to the problem of Iran's military role in the Gulf except to seek to lessen its hostility and work to integrate it rather than exclude it in longer-range Gulf strategic fora.
Finally, the difficult question of Iranian support for terrorism. Even this very real problem has for political reasons unfortunately been elevated beyond rational analysis in the heated rhetoric between Washington and Tehran. There can be no doubt: it was Iran's support to the Lebanese Shiite Hizbollah in the 1980s that led to the most devastating campaign of terrorism in the history of the modem Middle East of that time, part of the a broader war among Israel, Syria and the United States. The war and assassinations between Hizbollah and Israel over Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon led to the terrible bombing incidents against Jewish targets in Argentina, with almost certain Iranian connivance. And the Salman Rushdie incident remains a classic affront to the supreme western value of freedom of expression, just as it was a classic affront to the supreme Muslim value of respect for religion. But as ugly as terrorism is, it must be seen as a form of war itself, and those wars must be seen in the perspective of the broad regional military struggle, with different sides employing different weapons, B-52's, tanks, naval aircrafts, guerrilla warfare and terrorism, with victims on all sides. And no nation in the Middle East has pursued terrorism as its chosen form of warfare as effectively as Iran.
On the other hand, Iran's role in other terrorist incidents in the region, especially since the early 1990s, has actually been minimal, even as authoritarian regimes in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Palestine, and Uzbekistan find it useful to blame "outside forces" for what are almost totally domestic problems. And indeed, Iran has been in touch with most Islamic fundamentalist movements around the globe, as has Saudi Arabia until very recently with far higher levels of funding. As offensive as the Mykonos assassinations of Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin was, sadly there is hardly a state in the region that does not engage in extra-judicial assassinations of its political enemies, including close U.S. allies Israel and Turkey.
The point is not to absolve Iran, but simply to place its offenses into some proportion with regional realities. Such balanced thinking is the first victim of the superheated rhetoric that has emanated from both Washington and Tehran for nearly two decades. Ironically, as Iran has moved slowly and painfully towards some greater moderation and democratization over the past few years, Washington's tone, until Khatami's election, has grown ever more shrill, complicating any chance of rapprochement. And efforts to portray Iran with some analytical balance have grown more difficult, crowded out by inflamed rhetoric and intense pro-Israeli lobbying against Tehran in Congress. Indeed, Congress has now taken the lead in anti-Iranian activity, much to the dismay of the administration.
Yes, there are a few things on the positive side of the ledger. In reality, Iran has a freer and more outspoken democratic parliament and press than most of the Arab countries. It has more women in parliament than does the United States. Its social mores are much more liberal than our close ally Saudi Arabia, but that receives no press attention. Improved U.S. ties with Iran should bring about a more balanced reckoning of just what Iran is and is not. Iran is quite capable of real pragmatism when it sees it is in its national interest. It was Khomeini himself who declared that the Iranian national interest took priority over Islam.
If we think creatively about a rapprochement with Iran, there are a remarkable number of common interests on which to hold discussions:
- Iraq: Saddam Hussein is more hateful to Iran even than to Washington; after all he invaded Iran, ravaged it, and systematically assassinates top Shiite clerics. But right now Tehran perceives Washington as a greater threat to its existence than Saddam, hence it plays with Saddam. This ironic reality can be easily reversed; Iran could play a significant role in helping hasten the end of Saddam.
- Gulf security: Iran, as the Gulfs single most important power, has a major role to play in its security. Iran depends more on the Straits of Hormuz for the export of oil than any other state. If Tehran is interested in lessening the U.S. military presence on the ground, then working towards a new regional security organization in which Iran would play a moderate and constructive role and would be conducive to regional stability.
- Central Asia and the Caspian: Iran has an interest in making sure that the new states of the region, for centuries part of a great Persian cultural empire, remain independent of any potential Russian neoimperialism. It shares that interest with Turkey and the United States, among others. Iran can help facilitate the development of the region. But the confrontation with Washington today pushes Tehran into Moscow's embrace as tactical partner.
- Democracy: As strange as it may seem, Iran bids to be one of the more democratic states of the region in the near future. The roots of its democratic movement go further back than do those of any Arab state: to 1906, parallel with Russia and Turkey. For all the flawed features of its political order, Iran's recent election surprise, regular elections, and turnover of power in accordance with constitutional law are way ahead of most other states in the region. Reduction of confrontation with Washington, if doable, will assist that process.
Iran's challenges to American interests have been considerable, first of all through the very existence of the Islamic Republic - representing the dramatic overthrow of the top U.S. ally in the Muslim world, the establishment of the first revolutionary fundamentalist government in the Muslim world, and the regular excoriation of American policies for nearly two decades. But Iran shows clear signs of nearing the end of its revolutionary convulsions and a readiness to start down the path of moderation. The process will not be easy or smooth, and there are many pitfalls. When it comes to rapprochement, there is far more at stake for Iran's politics than for U.S. politics.
For Washington the issue is actually larger than just Iran. A process of reconciliation with the world's first revolutionary Islamic regime is of immense symbolic, political and psychological importance to future U.S. relations with other Islamist regimes and movements in the world. Once some mutual sense of confidence in the relationship can be restored, many of the present deep ideological impasses – peace process, strategic weapons, terrorist ties - can be dealt with. Easing of the political and psychological confrontation will bring its own easing of other significant concrete problems. As a great regional power, Iran is likely to remain permanently prickly, jealous of certain regional prerogatives, as are India, China, Russia and others. But under circumstances of rapprochement, those problems can then fall into manageable proportions. They have not yet reached manageable proportions, however, to the detriment of the interests of both states. The failure of both Tehran and Washington to checkmate each other will hopefully now lead to greater realism on both sides.