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Dealing with Iran

THIS column will advance a thesis that may seem provocative, even a little cuckoo, in the midst of the domestic upheaval over the Reagan administration's Iran debacle. The thesis is that the United States, in concert with other interested nations, is going to have to develop an intelligent approach toward dealing with Iran.

The problems are many.

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The American people have correctly shown their distaste for sending arms to Iran in its present mood.

The existing regime in Iran is extreme. It encourages violent Islamic passions. It deals in terror.

There is no hint of any moderation on the part of the existing regime. Alternatives that might be more moderate are hard to discover.

Yet in the long run, Iran is too important, in terms of geography and impact upon its neighbors, to be written off without an effort to engage it in some kind of rational discourse.

Therefore the United States needs to think through what happens when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's hate-hobbled regime comes to an end. The US needs to be pondering what kind of a structure will succeed it, and who will be the leading personalities. The US should be considering what signals it can send, now, or then, that might nudge Iran back into the world of reason.

There are US allies with similar ambitions. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have exhibited clear interest in trying to get along with Iran. Japan has some contacts. There are others.

All this, to quote President Reagan in another context, may seem like bile in the throats of many Americans remembering the humiliation of their country at Iranian hands.

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But Iran is too great a prize to let the anguish of the past obscure the possibilities of the future.

Few Americans admire the Soviet Union, but they approve their government's trying to work with it.

For many years, the US and the People's Republic of China did not talk, but Americans generally seem to approve of the present workmanlike relationship between the two countries.

Should there be such a dialogue between the US and Iran? Can there be one? These are the questions the government's foreign policy experts should be assessing.

How to go about this? Well, as we have learned from recent hard lessons, the State Department should take the lead. We cannot afford any more independent diplomatic cavalry charges from the National Security Council staff.

When the State Department has developed a range of options, these should be moved through the NSC process, shepherded by the respected new national-security adviser, Frank Carlucci. Other agencies would get their say. The President would decide. And though some aspects of a diplomatic initiative might have to remain secret, the understanding of the US public should be sought and won. Foreign policy cannot be a policy without public support.

This contingency planning will not be easy. Even the proper signals to Iran may find no response. That country is in the midst of a confusing power struggle over the succession. There is some weariness over its long war with Iraq. There is economic disruption. But zealotry still runs wild.

How should the end of the Iran-Iraq war be shaped? Iran, because of its greater manpower, is the more likely victor, although probably not a clear-cut one. What does this mean to the worried Gulf states that eye present-day Iran with fear?

In the midst of the present uproar at home, it may seem fanciful to Americans to be contemplating an improved relationship with some Iranian entity yet to emerge. Even if the US can coordinate some new approach to Iran, it may be brutally rebuffed.

But given the present non-relationship, the wisdom of trying to think through some intelligent and coordinated efforts to improve things seems to bear little downside risk.

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