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Building Trust and Confidence

Michael J. Ring

In groundbreaking local elections held Friday, the people of Iran went to the polls to elect over 200,000 local officials in cities and towns across the nation. Early returns as of Saturday night showed moderate allies of President Mohammed Khatami were leading in several key cities. Such a victory would be important for the president, whose reform attempts have been stymied by conservative influences in other branches of government. A victory for the reformers at the local levels would also give them needed momentum going into next year’s parliamentary elections, where Khatami and his supporters hope to reverse the current majority held by Islamic hard-liners. Such a result would help thaw the icy relations between Washington and Tehran.

Of course, events in Iran mark only half the battle. An equally important question is how our policy wonks in Foggy Bottom will respond to these latest developments. Probably they will express guarded optimism on these latest developments, and nothing more. Unfortunately such a response, to which the United States has resorted after every outreach by Iran, could only stifle any hope of extended dialogue and dÉtente between the United States and Iran.

The next move in American-Iranian relations rests on this side of the Atlantic, and it is time for the United States to seek a formal dialogue with the government of Iran. After a 1998 interview with CNN during which President Khatami praised the United States for its freedom and tolerance, hopes were high for an amelioration of relations between his nation and ours.

Indeed, some limited exchanges of journalists and athletes have taken place, and have been very successful. But beyond that, little has come of Khatami’s invitation for a greater dialogue. There are no official diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran. No U.S. embassy or consulate can be found in that nation. Trade embargoes severely restrict U.S. exports to a potentially lucrative market and only lend credence to hard-line Iranians, who argue the United States is trying to isolate and crush their nation. Normal trade is banned, and the Clinton administration has responded to an Iranian request for U.S. grain and foodstuffs by twiddling its thumbs and sitting on the request.

The U.S. State Department has not started or followed through on major initiatives with the Islamic Republic. To them, it is as though the nation of Iran does not even exist. And in fact, the United States would rather pretend that Iran did not exist. After all, Iranian revolutionaries proved a major embarrassment to us in 1979, and they did hold American citizens as hostage. But after decades of America imposing the pro-Western Shah on the Iranian people, was the Iranians reaction really that surprising or irrational?

Two decades out, however, the only image of Iran most U.S. foreign policy officials can conjure is that of the 1979 revolution, even as we normalize relations with other formerly hostile nations such as Vietnam. Unfortunately for the State Department, Iran is out there, and it has a rightful role to be a big player in the Middle East. With 67 million inhabitants and rich oil and mineral deposits, Iran has both the physical and human resources to be a modern nation with significant regional influence.

Last year, I argued in this space that the United States should normalize relations with Iran [“Changing the U.S. Policy Tune,” January 14, 1998]. I then argued it is in the United States’ strategic interest to seek greater ties with Iran. I then wrote such actions would cut the mistrust between Washington and Tehran and allow the United States to exert more internal influence in the nation to help Khatami and his reformist allies and seek greater human rights and liberties within the nation.

All those arguments remain true today. But an examination of world events over the past year demonstrates creating positive relations with Iran is now even more important to the United States. Simple geography should indicate why: Iran sits between three of the world’s most unstable states: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. With Saddam still entrenched in Iraq, the Taliban causing chaos in Afghanistan, and the acquisition of nuclear capability by Pakistan, Southwest Asia continues to be a treacherous corner of the world. Allying ourselves with Iran provides a strong axis to counter these threats to stability.

The typical State Department response to the Iranian elections would be a non-response. Unfortunately, more drastic action is needed to ameliorate relations between the two nations. These opportunities will not last forever, and the United States must act soon to show trust and confidence in Iranian relations before this window closes and relations are frozen anew.