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Changing the U.S. Policy Tune - The United States Should Respond Positively to Khatami's Overtures



Michael J. Ring

There are few nations that raise the ire and anger of the United States as does Iran. Memories of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the taking of U.S. citizens as hostages burn within the minds of policy-makers. Two decades of anti-American propaganda spewing out of Tehran has only solidified the State Department's view that Iran is to be isolated and marginalized.

The Iranian government similarly has seen many reasons to distrust the United States. American support of the Shah still enrages many Iranians. And the downing of an Iranian jetliner over the Persian Gulf was an unjustifiably aggressive act on the part of the United States.

Within the past year, however, there have been signs of a thaw in the cold, mutually disdainful relationship between Iran and the United States. The election of Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, as president of Iran last year has raised many hopes that Tehran and Washington would soon normalize relations. President Khatami's interview with CNN this month has largely confirmed those hopes.

President Khatami has demonstrated a willingness to risk the scorn of conservative elements in his country and bridge the cavernous gulf of misunderstanding and contempt between Iran and the United States. It is time for the United States to respond positively to his overtures. The Clinton administration should seek a normalization of political ties between Tehran and Washington.

From the head of the government of a nation associated strongly with anti-American propaganda, President Khatami's statements were shocking and pleasing. He praised the United States as a great nation and a beacon of religious freedom. This is a welcome change from conservative clerics who denounce the United States as a Satanic nation. President Khatami further called for an exchange of scholars, artists, and journalists between the two nations.

The official Washington response was to welcome these comments but to insist on government-to-government dialogue.

President Khatami stopped short of calling for a direct, immediate dialogue between the United States and Iran. But to call for such talks in an interview would have enraged the powerful conservative elements in Iran.

The State Department has three concerns which it believes must be addressed in government-to-government talks: Iran's connections to and support for terrorist groups; Iran's desire for weapons of mass destruction; and Iran's opposition to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

All three of these issues are legitimate concerns which need to be raised in high-level discussions. But the best way to address all these concerns is to invite President Khatami into a high-level dialogue between Washington and Tehran.

Terrorists thrive on the hatred between the United States and Iran. They feel the need to avenge U.S. behavior toward Iran through violence. If America adopts a more positive policy toward Iran, this large impetus for terrorist acts would be shattered. Cooperation between the United States and Iran would allow Americans and Iranians to be more trusting of each other. It would also encourage the government of Iran to crack down on suspected terrorists and share information it learns about impending terrorist acts with the United States.

A detente between the United States and Iran would also help to deter Iran from any desires to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The current policy of containment only fuels the desire for Iran to build biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. The need and desire for such weapons would be lessened if Iran were an accepted member of the international community with strong ties to the world's superpower. Conversely, an American rejection of Khatami's overtures would show Iran a foreign policy that is stubborn and inflexible, an impression that would only fuel a desire by some Iranians to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Engaging President Khatami is also the best strategy to soften Iran's opposition to Middle East peace talks. In his interview President Khatami admitted he was personally opposed to talks. The present government of Israel, however, has done little to build confidence and trust among the Muslim world. U.S. dialogue with Iran and continued forceful U.S. pressure on the government of Israel could convince Iran to drop its opposition and join the peace process.

Iran is too large of a nation to isolate and ignore, as does present U.S. foreign policy. A nation of 66 million and possessing rich oil and natural gas reserves, Iran has the potential to be a political and economic force in the Middle East. It is therefore imperative that Iran be included in a stable political settlement in the Middle East. It is too large and important of a nation to be marginalized.

Approaching Iran will certainly involve risk and the potential for failure. It will be a tricky foreign policy maneuver for an administration not widely known for its risk-taking abilities. But over the past year all of the risks for peace have been taken by President Khatami. He has been the one to oppose powerful forces in a country opposed to peace. He has been the one who has extended the hand of friendship to the United States. It is time for the United States to accept his offer and respond. The only thing the people of America and Iran have to lose is mutual mistrust.