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Iran and the U.S.

By Hamid Ansari

Ideological imperatives notwithstanding, practical considerations are beginning to be voiced in the United States on ties with Iran.

WASHINGTON IS nothing if not a battleground of interests and ideas supportive of those interests. These battles shape the environment on issues of relevance. The pressure of environment can grow so strong that divergent viewpoints are viewed as heretical. Despite this the need to seek a wider perspective is also felt. For a quarter of a century, this has at times been true of the relationship with Iran. An instance of it surfaced last month when the Council for Foreign Relations, New York, published a Report on Iran produced by an Independent Task Force co-chaired by the former United States National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Robert Gates. A look at the membership of the team dispels any impression of "softness".

The Report admits to "a self-perpetuating cycle whereby mutual distrust begets uncompromising assertiveness and unyielding negotiating positions." It makes a hard assessment of Iran in domestic and foreign policy terms, and proposes a future course "to best address U.S. concerns and advance U.S. interests" since "official enmity between Washington and Tehran belies the convergence in their interests in specific areas." It admits to the centrality of Iran in geopolitical terms, and takes note of the strategic gains accruing to Iran as a result of the decimation of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam Hussain in Iraq.

It also acknowledges "Iranian resourcefulness and diplomatic dexterity" in matters nuclear but assesses that "a sort of selective accommodation with the international community" would continue. It accepts the durability "even in medium term" of the present Iranian Government, and notes that some segments of the conservative sections of the leadership (with Rafsanjani mentioned by name) are "capable of making limited concessions to reform in their policies both at home and abroad." The report concedes a significant and meaningful moderation in foreign policy but cautions that "prospects for additional moderation of Iran's international approach remains highly uncertain."

The principal recommendation of the Task Force, for U.S. policy, is that a direct dialogue be initiated with Iran on specific subjects through "a basic statement of principles along the lines of the 1972 Shanghai Communique" signed by the United States and China. The focus of this dialogue should be on six themes. (a) Regional stabilisation in Afghanistan and Iraq. (b) A quid pro quo on the question of terrorist groups by Iran coming clean on the question of the presence of Al-Qaeda elements in Iran in return for the U.S. taking steps "to conclusively disband" the Iraq-based Mujahidden-e-Khalq cadres that often mounts across the border forays in Iran. (c) A more focussed strategy, to be developed with the European Union and Russia, for the fulfilment by Iran of its October 2003 commitment to the International Atomic Energy Agency on the nuclear issue or face the prospects of multilateral sanctions imposed by the Security Council. (d) Resumption by the U.S. of "a genuinely active involvement" in the West Asian peace process "to stem the tide of extremism in the region" and on the assessment that Iran would acquiesce in a settlement since its "hostility towards the peace process is not immutable." (e) Take steps to reduce Iran's isolation by permitting wider contacts in different fields (including financial institutions whose support Iran would need for its major energy and pipeline projects). (f) Consent to Iran's application to begin talks with the WTO.

The section of the Report on regional conflicts — Iraq and Afghanistan — indicates the urgency of a new approach. The U.S. has compelling interests in both and "Iran has demonstrated its ability and readiness to use its influence constructively in these two countries, but also its capacity to make trouble." Hence the recommendation to resume and expand the Geneva type discussions that were held with Teheran earlier.

"Such a dialogue should be structured to obtain constructive Iranian involvement in the process of consolidating authority within the central governments and rebuilding the economies of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Regular contacts with Iran would also provide a channel to address concerns that have arisen about its activities and relationships with competing power centers in both countries. These discussions should incorporate other regional power brokers, as well as Europe and Russia — much like the `Six Plus Two' negotiations on Afghanistan that took place in the years before the Taliban were ousted. A multilateral forum on the future of Iraq and Afghanistan would help cultivate confidence and would build political and economic relationships essential to the long-term durability of the new governments in Baghdad and Kabul."

On another aspect of regional security, the Report asserts that "U.S. interests in achieving peace and stability in the Persian Gulf would be best served by engaging Iran and each of its neighbors in a dialogue aimed at establishing an effective organization to promote regional security and cooperation. Such an organization could be structured to provide a forum for regional dialogue, confidence-building measures, economic cooperation, conflict prevention, and crisis management."

The Report recommends incremental progress rather than a grand bargain, and accepts that the regime of sanctions has not produced the desired results. It suggests that better results can be obtained through the prospects of normal commercial relations with the U.S. and, in what may amount to a heresy in official Washington, proposes that the slogan of "regime change" be dropped since it arouses Iranian nationalist sentiments and brings back the memories of the American role in the ouster of Mosaddeq in 1953. Instead, the policy should be to encourage political evolution and include Iran in the Administration's Middle East Initiative of 2002.

The publication of the Report has rekindled a fierce new debate between the realists and the neo-conservatives. The latter have been helped by the publication of the 9/11 Commission report and its revelation that some of the September 11, 2001 hijackers transited through Iran even though no evidence of official complicity has been found. Harsh assertions have also emanated from Bush administration officials. A controlled rage over the nuclear question, and over the conduct in the matter of the E.U., is evident. Apart from it (unsubstantiated) allegations of interference in Iraq have been made. Fareed Zakaria has asserted categorically that Iran is the problem of the future.

Ideological imperatives notwithstanding, practical considerations are beginning to be voiced. Dow Jones Energy Service reported on July 30 on the work in Iran of a Halliburton subsidiary and quoted its chief executive telling a business audience in Houston that working in Iran "is right and right." Knowledgeable academics like William Beeman feel the "new round of Iran-bashing is not a prelude to another invasion of a Persian Gulf country but rather a political ploy in an election year."

The impulses motivating the Report require careful analysis. The difficulties of the ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq could be one reason. Another could be the nuclear profile of Iran. The sheer impracticality of ignoring Iran in a wider scheme of things covering West and Central Asia may finally have provoked this departure from orthodoxy. That the CFR, so representative of the foreign policy establishment, has taken the initiative at this stage suggests both a public acknowledgement of the failure of existing policy and a suggestion that some new thinking may fructify in the post-election period. The Report is a signalling exercise in an intricate game that the Americans and the Iranians have played over a number of years. The response from Teheran is typically Iranian — defiant and conciliatory, elliptical, contradictory, fully reflective of the multiplicity of centres that characterise the decision-making mechanism of the Islamic Republic.

Henry Kissinger has written that the Shanghai Communique "had an unprecedented feature: more than half of it was devoted to stating the conflicting views of the two sides on ideology, international affairs, Vietnam, Taiwan. In a curious way, the catalogue of disagreements conferred greater significance on those subjects on which the two sides agreed." The mention of that historic document in the context of Iran is itself significant. Others have written about an older American romance with matters Chinese; less has been said about an equally fervent fancy for Iran. The resumed romance of a quarrelsome pair should therefore be watched with interest since it could have far-reaching geopolitical implications for the region and beyond.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)

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