U.S., Iran both need an attitude change

December 21, 2008 - 0:0

As she prepares for her role as Secretary of State, Senator Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Obama foreign policy team should consider how a new American-Iranian relationship might advance American interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, and conceivably even the Arab-Israeli peace process.

This will not be easy. Thirty years have passed since the Iranian Revolution without formal diplomatic relations or any sustained dialogue between Washington and Tehran, and mutual suspicion remains entrenched.
Iran readily recites past actions such as our support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the congressional appropriation of funds to advance democracy in Iran as evidence of America's intent to overturn the Iranian regime and meddle in Iranian affairs.
Americans have bitter memories of Iranian students seizing the U.S. Embassy and its personnel in Tehran in 1979. But few Americans recall how the Iranians were helpful to the United States in Afghanistan after our invasion in 2001 in actively supporting the Bonn conference agenda to help rebuild the new Afghanistan state and in supporting the Afghan parliament's endorsement of Hamid Karzai as its president.
So changing American attitudes about Iran is as important as changing Iranian attitudes about the U.S. Washington has gotten into the habit of thinking about the Middle East as if it were ""America's backyard,"" casually denying the interests of other states, including Iran, in their own neighborhood.
The Bush administration has focused its Iran policy on the nuclear issue and has pushed for sanctions, only lately adopting the approach initiated by European allies to encourage Tehran to open up its nuclear program to rigorous inspections. But this combination of carrots and sticks so far has not produced a positive response and the Iranian nuclear program has reportedly developed more quickly than appeared possible just a few months ago.
There are several ways to signal interest in a new approach: broadening educational exchanges and sporting events, for example. The official dialogue itself should start between lower level officials but the Iranian officials involved must be clearly identified as licensed to speak on behalf of their government.
The negotiations must not be half-hearted approaches simply to create the appearance that ""we have tried"" and now have no choice but to return to previous adversarial policies
For Washington to sustain an American-Iranian dialogue will at some point require that Iran drop its threats against Israel and affirm its readiness to support a future settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis. However, Washington cannot expect this or other Iranian policies to change as a precondition of our dialogue with Tehran.
On the other hand, Iran will predictably seek far-reaching changes in U.S. policy towards Iran and the region as a whole. Whether or how to provide these policy changes will only become clear once engagement is underway.
The road to improved U.S.-Iranian relations will be rocky but the possible mutual benefit to both American and Iranian interests is evident. The time to start is now.
(Source: Washington Post)