U.S. and Iran Have a Bridge to Rebuild

Bruce Laingen is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. He was the senior diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when it was seized by Iranian militants in 1979

When I was a hostage in Iran, often venting my frustration with those who held us, one of the more friendly of them would sometimes try to reassure us by reciting a Persian proverb: "Nothing ever stays the same forever."

It is approaching 20 years since Iran and the U.S. had an official relationship. While that may not rank as forever in relations between states, it is a long time. But recent signals back and forth between the two governments, however tentative, suggest that perhaps that Persian proverb may have some relevance. It should; America's interests are ill served by what prevails today.

President Mohammad Khatami, after asserting in his CNN interview that Iran does not need official relations with the U.S., spoke instead of educational, cultural and other private exchanges, to begin to widen a crack in the "wall of distrust." Soon thereafter the U.S. posed "no objection" to American wrestlers traveling to Iran. The athletes found an enthusiastic welcome, as do without exception all of the Americans allowed to visit. Current visa restrictions on Iranians wishing to visit the U.S. are said to be under review. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi tells the press that the ball is in the U.S. court. President Clinton, in a message to Iran at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, noted with regret the "estrangement" between the two countries and said that while the U.S. has real differences with some Iranian policies, "these are not insurmountable"--the most positive public statement from the U.S. side in years.

Not that widening the crack will be easy. A 20-year legacy of distrust is not easily overcome. Both governments have large concerns about the other's policies. These are well known and long recited, to the point where they have become holy writ. Khatami's freedom of movement is constrained by the contest for both political and Islamic ascendancy underway in the body politic of Iran. But clearly there is something new in the air, a sense that perhaps something positive may be possible, that neither side can afford continued confrontation.

On the Iranian side, Khatami certainly knows that private exchanges would lead to pressure for official contacts. His assertion that Iran doesn't need the latter is nonsense. Surely he knows better; the state of Iran's economy alone dictates that need, not to mention the reality of the American political/military presence in the Gulf region, which is not going away soon.

And on the American side, the current crisis with Iraq must certainly have triggered a new awareness among policy- makers of Iran's place in our strategic interests in the region. This is a country with the potential for regional dominance; long a major crossroads of East and West, it is now a place of some North/South consequence for the oil and the politics of Central Asia. The U.S. must somehow find a way to deal directly with the government in Tehran if our differences are ever to be addressed and our interests furthered.

The challenge for serious-minded realists on both sides is how to exploit the small openings beginning to appear. Both governments have begun lowering their rhetoric, the first essential for any attempt at dialogue. Both can benefit from greater private exchanges, to nurture the common ground they share in human terms, not least in the fact that the United States is home to the second largest Persian-speaking population in the world. But it is well past time to seek official exchanges, at the outset simply to find a place, preferably out of sight, to sit down and talk, in the first instance simply about how to talk, without preconditions. U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson marveled recently to the press that he and Foreign Minister Kharrazi had actually shaken hands at a conference in Davos. Perhaps it is time for both governments to consider emulating what the Israelis and Palestinians did and send trusted emissaries off to a quiet place like Oslo, to explore putting together an agenda for dialogue.

Nothing should ever stay the same forever.

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