Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

How to Build US-Iran Relations

| September 26, 2007

SEEING THINGS with parted eyes, like Hermia in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream," is how US-Iran relations appear, with dialogue, both direct and indirect, and escalating tensions between the two countries transpiring simultaneously. The ongoing saga between Iran and the United States, more than a quarter of a century old, has all the marking of a potentially serious, even catastrophic, chapter in international relations.

Both Tehran and Washington need to increase efforts in preventive diplomacy in order to set relations on a peaceful track instead of a collision course. They should focus on shared or parallel interests, narrow their differences, and identify the issuesthat preclude normalization. After all, both Iran and the United States have diplomatic relations with other nations that do not completely see eye to eye with them on every important issue.

The US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has certainly altered the substance of US-Iran relations. Although Iran welcomed the toppling by the United States of two of its foes — the Taliban and the Ba'athist regime in Iraq — it has been disquieted by the United States' categorizing it as part of an "axis of evil," and, more recently, branding it as a new Cold War enemy requiring the United States to forge an anti-Iran alliance in the broader Middle East.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran is interested in deepening the new political processes that have brought Iran-friendly regimes to power. In Iraq, Iran has vested its interests in the institutionalization of the post-Saddam political order, which is why Tehran has welcomed the latest political compact among Iraq's ruling factions (as has the United States). In addition to a generous $1 billion credit, Tehran has been assisting Iraq's economic reconstruction by signing trade, energy, and border security agreements.

That means the United States must take Iran's offer of cooperation on Iraq's security seriously, in light of three rounds of trilateral talks in Baghdad culminating in the agreement to set up a joint committee of experts. Unfortunately, such significant developments are potentially jeopardized by the contradictory stance of the United States, reflected in its refusal to release the five Iranians it kidnapped in Erbil, Kurdistan.

That would be a pity, seeing how long and difficult it has been for the United States and Iran to overcome their apprehensions about direct dialogue, not to mention the prospects of a broader dialogue on such thorny issues as regional security and antiterrorism. Good-faith negotiations by both sides can lead to concrete confidence-building measures and tangible benefits, in light of Iran's influence with the Shi'ite groups in Iraq.

What's more, as Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, has repeatedly said, the US-Iran dialogue can have a positive impact on talks about Iran's nuclear program. The linkage between the two can be positive or negative, but US policy makers would be remiss not to see the linkage.

True, Iran has not suspended its uranium enrichment program, but it has not ignored the UN Security Council resolutions on Iran either, as can be discerned in the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency citing "significant progress" in Iran-IAEA cooperation. With the United States and Iran talking in Iraq and Iran-IAEA cooperation yielding concrete results in terms of Iran's nuclear transparency, the stage is potentially set for de-escalating the US-Iran tensions, particularly if both sides adopt a long-term view and sort out the security dimension.

A mutual moratorium on demonization of the other side, coupled with earnest attempts to explore areas of potential cooperation between the United States and Iran, is needed in order to remove what former president Mohammad Khatami once referred to as the tall "wall of distrust" between the two sides.

Abbas Maleki is a visiting senior researcher at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi teaches international relations at Bentley College. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Maleki, Abbas and Kaveh L. Afrasiabi.“How to Build US-Iran Relations.” The Boston Globe, September 26, 2007.

The Authors