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Iran Has a Message. Are We Listening?

The Bush team is in danger of letting the current opening from Iran pass it by as well. The administration doesn't seem to recognize that diplomatic coercion by itself can't work -- not with a country that has turned its nuclear program into a national crusade. And one hears little acknowledgment from senior U.S. officials that the United States and Iran share some critical interests. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a June 8 roundtable with the Wall Street Journal editorial board, called the U.S.-Iranian relationship "overall rather zero-sum" and confessed that she couldn't figure Iran out. "I think it's a very opaque place, and it's a political system I don't understand very well," she said.

It is this impression of inevitably clashing interests that Rezai was trying hard to dispel. He pointed out that his is the only country that can help Washington control Shiite militias in Iraq, slow the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and tame Hezbollah's still-dangerous presence in Lebanon all at once. "If America pursues a different approach than confronting Iran, our dealings will change fundamentally," he said.

My conversations with hard-liners and reformers inside Tehran also suggested something deeper: that under the right circumstances, Iran may still be willing to stop short of building a bomb. "Iran would like to have the technology, and that is enough for deterrence," says S.M.H. Adeli, Iran's moderate, urbane former ambassador to London.

And what of other overlapping interests? Let's start with Iraq, the one area where Washington does seem to acknowledge it needs Tehran's help, even as the administration continues to accuse Iran of delivering sophisticated makeshift bombs to Iraqi militants. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government "is of strategic importance to us," Rezai said. "We want this government to stay in power. Rival Sunni countries oppose Maliki. We haven't." It also stands to reason that in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the new "Hamastan" in Gaza -- all places where Tehran wields enormous influence -- an Iran that is encouraged to play a broader regional security role could become more cooperative.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Iran's toxic relationship with Israel, especially President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial that the Holocaust happened and his threats toward a U.S. ally. But several Iranian officials hinted that Ahmadinejad crossed a red line in Iranian politics when he pushed his rhetoric beyond the official hope that Israel would one day disappear to suggest that Tehran might help that process along. A new Iranian president would rebalance that position, they indicated.

Still, the Iranians themselves recognize that a more dramatic shift in policy is unlikely to happen on Bush's watch. "Mr. Bush's government is stuck at a crossroads" between confrontation and engagement, "and it can't make a decision," Rezai said. "We have a saying in Farsi: When a child walks in darkness, he starts singing or making loud noises because he's afraid of the dark. The Americans are afraid to negotiate with Iran, and that's why they're making a lot of loud noises." Whether or not that's true, new noises are clearly coming from Tehran. Washington should listen.

Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek.

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