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It's Time to Rethink the US-Iran Relationship

Iranian-American relations remain as venomous as ever. Rarely have US officials described another country in such consistently emotional and negative terms. The pervasive emotionalism in these statements should make the policy itself suspect and prompt reexamination. But this is not happening.

Granted, on more than one occasion the Iranian regime has acted against the United States. But Washington has exaggerated Iran's capabilities to hurt the US and its friends. Last year the Clinton administration justified a total trade embargo on Iran because of its "export of terrorism, its threat to the Middle East peace process, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons." The US has succeeded in denying Iran access to capital and technology and has thereby damaged its position as one of the world's major oil producers.

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In dealing with this subject, let us begin by recognizing that Tehran has not developed its policies in a vacuum. Iran is a large country with a long history and a complex set of foreign policies. Its leaders do not spend every waking moment conjuring up new ways to frustrate Washington. For example, its recent trade delegation to Ukraine talked the specifics of trade. Its activities in Central Asia have been those of a country trying through trade and normal diplomatic contacts to enhance its national position.

Most recently, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's foreign minister, arrived in Damascus when Secretary of State Warren Christopher was there trying to broker a new understanding between Syria, Israel, and Lebanon over the cross-border attacks by the Hizbullah militia. Mr. Velayati was reportedly not unhelpful once it was agreed that Hizbullah would be allowed to keep fighting Israeli soldiers within southern Lebanon.

The policy of "dual containment," that seductive phrase which quickly became part of the vocabulary of American Persian Gulf policy in 1993, has helped paralyze our thinking about Iran. "Containment" has lost the meaning we once gave it when we talked for nearly half a century of containing the Soviets. Today we routinely dismiss the Iranian Islamic regime as a pariah state. But history and geography work against that mind-set. Iran is a major state in the region and sooner or later will again make its weight felt. An unintended result of our current thinking has been to push Iran toward Russia and China, an outcome that defies logic and US national interest.

A respected Iranian-American historian recently drew my attention to the effect on Tehran's policymakers of President Bush's speech of March 6, 1991. Addressing a joint session of Congress just after "Desert Storm," the president talked about US support for Gulf security and his intentions to move the Middle East peace process ahead. He did not mention Iran at all.

This historian asserted that Iran viewed that speech as representing the worst possible vision Washington could devise for Iran. The Iranians felt that they had cooperated with the United Nations during the war. The historian believes that Iran's increasingly hard-line position against the peace process stemmed from that speech. If that is an accurate interpretation, it raises the question of a possible trade-off that would serve both American and Iranian interests. Couldn't there be a gain for all parties if a way were found to include Iran in deliberations about Gulf security - if, in turn, this would soften Iran's position on the peace process?

These are not easy questions, but they should be addressed. We have negotiated security arrangements with individual members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as within the forum of those six states plus Syria and Egypt. Syria would probably welcome bringing Iran into these consultations. Egypt would probably be just as appalled as Washington even to hear the suggestion.

On the other hand, the Arab Gulf states directly concerned would like to see better relations between the US and Iran. They do not openly criticize US policy, sensing both the depth of American feeling about Iran and Iranian malevolence toward some of them. Privately, however, they say a better US-Iran relationship would make their lives easier.

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Iran has spoken of developing confidence-building measures with the Gulf Cooperation Council. In the last few months, Tehran has made quiet offers to Qatar and Kuwait about mutual defense arrangements. It is not clear what exactly has been offered, but joint exercises seem to have been mentioned, as well as ways to somehow integrate Iran into the GCC's mutual security structure. Iran's aim is likely to be to drive a wedge within the GCC block of countries and, if possible, between the GCC and the United States.

The present US administration will likely not take any positive initiative toward Iran. Nor will Iran pick up our 10-year-old offer of official talks. There have reportedly been some private contacts. None have been officially inspired, but they represent a small beginning of dialogue.

Has the time come to engage in "track-two" diplomacy - that is, the use of nongovernmental channels, officially inspired but officially deniable, to talk to one another in a preliminary way? A notable recent success of track-two diplomacy was the 1993 talks between Israeli and Palestinian academics under Norwegian auspices. They led eventually to official exchanges, the signing of the Oslo accords, and the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO.

If both sides were to find this an acceptable way to start, what might they discuss? The American agenda might include one or possibly two of the issues about which we feel most strongly: the peace process and Iran's intentions on nuclear weapons. Any attempt to raise the issue of Iranian support for terrorism would quickly run into a stone wall. The Iranians predictably would ask for proof of American charges. Washington consistently has refused to answer such questions, saying that it has convincing evidence but cannot reveal it because this would compromise sensitive sources and methods.

In pointing this out, I am not minimizing the record of Iranian involvement in terrorism. Former colleagues, with access to intelligence reporting and whose word I trust, tell me it is substantial.

On its nuclear intentions, Iran has stated that it is open "any time, anywhere" to international inspection. The US has been understandably disillusioned about the inadequacies of international inspection, particularly since the failure of the International Atomic Energy Agency to discover the scope of Iraq's nuclear program before "Desert Storm." Since Iran is in the early stages of nuclear research, an inspection, even if pursued "anywhere and anytime" by a more aggressive IAEA, might fail to develop evidence of a nuclear-weapons program. But a dialogue would be of use, and Iran's statement offers a good opening.

Would Iran be interested in such a dialogue? It is clear the government will probably not accept the long-standing US offer of a political dialogue if it is restricted to weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. It might have been easier for Iran to approach Washington through the side door of commerce, but we have slammed that door shut.

On the peace process, it is conceivable that the Iranians may have chosen to attack the process not because it is, as they allege, unjust to the Palestinians, but simply because they know how much its success means to the US. I doubt the leadership cares all that deeply about the future of the Palestinians, although it undoubtedly considers support for the "Palestinian cause" important to Iranian credentials as an Islamic world leader. I also doubt Tehran understands the full impact its anti-Israeli statements have both on Israel and the US. The US, in agreeing to any track-two diplomacy, would need to keep Israel closely informed.

Clearly, confidence-building is needed in both Washington and Tehran. Much Pentagon expertise these days is dedicated to planning for two regional wars at the same time. The opponents normally referred to are North Korea and Iran. We should not see continuing confrontation or escalation toward war with Iran as inevitable. Our government's efforts to pre-position equipment and carry out joint exercises with the Arab Gulf states in anticipation of attack from either Iran or Iraq has had positive results. American political will to defend our interests in the Gulf is manifest to all.

But there will always be underlying doubts on the part of Gulf leaders about the durability of our commitment. This is natural whenever small powers tie their fate to the policies of a distant Great Power.

To alter the present course of US-Iran relations will not be easy. No American politician has anything to gain from publicly seeking an improvement in the relationship. The same is true in Tehran. The international community has not joined us in sanctions against Iran, and there is little precedent in international relations for assuming that sanctions change state behavior.

Washington scoffs at the assumption, prevalent in Japan and many European capitals, that constructive engagement with Iran may help us attain our goals of limiting its acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and ending state-supported terrorism. But given our lack of success in pursuing these goals by containment, we should not shut our minds to the idea.

*Richard W. Murphy is senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a former assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs.

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