Fifty-five American diplomats held hostage for 444 days in Tehran (1981). A CIA-led overthrow of a democratic Iranian government (1953).
Iranian complicity in terrorist bombings of Marine barracks in Beirut and an Israeli embassy in Argentina, killing 300 Americans and Israelis. Admitted U.S. responsibility for the accidental downing of an Iranian airliner, killing hundreds of Iranian civilians.
And those are just the worst events during the last six decades of U.S.-Iran relations. Throw in the Bush administration’s call for “regime change,” add Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons for 20 years and a clash of interests in Iraq, and you have the makings of a very bad novel. Truth is stranger than fiction in this case, and it is a wonder that U.S.-Iran relations are not even worse.
But history has a way of providing an opportunity for new directions. And current conditions in Washington and Tehran set the stage for a significant shift in the strategic equation that could benefit both countries, and lead to a more stable Middle East.
Whether leaders of the two countries can seize that opportunity is another question. But the opportunity is there, for several reasons.
1. The election of Barack Obama – and his campaign commitment to explore engagement with Iranian leaders. He boldly said he would sit down with them, even while affirming opposition to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
2. Iran’s worsening economic situation – due to a 65 percent drop in the price of oil – and related political unrest, including growing opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran holds presidential elections in June.
3. A convergence of interests in limiting instability in Iraq and Afghanistan (plus Pakistan). Just look at a map and you’ll see why Iran is the big short-term winner of George W. Bush’s reckless war in Iraq (Saddam and Taliban removed), but potentially a big loser as an arc of chaos spreads on their borders.
4. Virtually all efforts to start a dialogue between Washington and Tehran have failed over 30 years, due to high distrust and hardline elements in both countries that subvert steps towards rapprochement. Add to that a major imbalance in power that favored the United States for years, now less so after Iraq.
At least a dozen difficult and intertwined issues divide the two countries: Iran’s opposition to Mideast peace, support for terrorism and groups like Hezbollah, and pursuit of nuclear weapons; from the Iranian perspective, Washington’s efforts to undermine Iran’s cleric-led regime, support for economic sanctions, and a blind eye to an Iranian underground group Washington considers terrorists.
Awaiting inauguration, Obama and company are receiving a flurry of advice from various think tanks on the most promising course to follow on Iran. Similar debates are taking place in Tehran, where leaders are divided on whether Obama’s election means a significant shift in U.S. policy or, due to appointment of more hawkish aides, possible continuity with Bush policies.
Given growing recognition that a military option is not desirable, most U.S. experts call for engagement. The main argument is whether to pursue an incremental, step-by-step approach or a “grand bargain” similar to the Nixon-Kissinger deal with China in the 1970s.
A mixture of the two approaches seems most likely to produce results. There is not time for the complex diplomacy required to develop a comprehensive agenda and settle all issues in one fell swoop. Reports of Iran’s technological success in enriching uranium suggest the need for positive signals and confidence-building measures sooner than later.
How to begin? The United States should not be shy about taking the first step. The U.S. is still far more powerful militarily; the Bush administration rejected a serious overture by Iran in 2003; and the U.S. has more to gain from a diplomatic breakthrough.
To lay the groundwork, Washington could agree to open “interests sections” in each other’s capitals to restore diplomatic relations. Iran could provide more cooperation in stabilizing Iraq and turn over information (it previously offered) on al-Qaida suspects.
It’s long past time for the United States to act like a great power – with strategic vision. Bush’s “axis of evil” approach has failed miserably – in part because the clerics who control Iran thrive on the threat of intervention by “the Great Satan.” Seventy percent of Iran’s 70 million people are under the age of 25, and most under-employed younger people are very much in favor of more freedom and Western culture.
Barack Obama poses a formidable challenge to Iran’s brittle power structure if he and his new team play their cards wisely. By showing he is ready to engage Iran with respect and not threats, Obama can put pressure on Iran’s leaders to end their defiance of international treaties on nuclear weapons and terrorism. The nuclear question will remain the toughest issue to resolve, but it can’t be done without direct dialogue.
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, where he reported on the Iranian revolution. He can be reached at email@example.com.