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Bridge to Tehran

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By Mohammad Hassan Khani
Monday, March 9, 2009

TEHRAN -- The state of relations between the United States and Iran is based on a long history of hostility and lack of trust. For Iranians, this tension dates to the early 1950s, when a coup engineered by the United States and Britain brought down Iran's first democratically elected government and replaced it with a brutal dictatorship that lasted nearly three decades. This derailed the Iranian democratic movement, and this pattern of hostility was reinforced by the White House's support for Saddam Hussein during his bloody eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. For Americans, the tension begins with the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979 and the humiliating hostage situation. It is possible this deeply rooted hostility can be overcome, but it will require genuine political will and effort from both sides.

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For starters, it is essential that U.S. officials change their language and behavior toward Iran. The vocabulary and posture that have long been used have failed. Phrases such as "all options are on the table" and "regime change" have deepened the gap and provoked further confrontation. Iranian citizens and officials are waiting to see the "change" Barack Obama pledged during his presidential campaign.

Iranians want to see a shift in Washington's perspective toward Tehran and then a real change in behavior. A tangible shift would build confidence and trust for any Iranian negotiating team and would enable pro-negotiation politicians to dare to speak out. For Iranians to build on any sort of opening with the United States, such politicians must begin to garner public support. Any policy pursued by the Obama administration that comes across as less than genuine will be perceived as an effort to deceive Iran -- and will perpetuate the hostility.

While much discussion about the United States and Iran focuses on their (real) differences, we should not close our eyes to common interests. Among the goals the United States and Iran share are bringing peace, security and stability to Afghanistan and Iraq; bringing security to the Persian Gulf; and combating the terrorism and radicalism that stem from the extreme version of Islam known as Salafism or Wahabism. Just as the United States recently reached out to Iran regarding Afghanistan, both sides can build on common interests in any of these areas.

For one thing, the interests of the United States, Iran, other nations in the Middle East and Afghanistan are increasingly aligning. For another, Iran's role in designing a constructive dialogue between the Islamic world and the West is significant. When the democratic process in Iran is compared with those of its neighbors -- many of whose governments, ironically, have been chosen by the United States and other Western nations -- Iran has a more open and diverse political field than most countries in the region. Iran's political system is actually closer to the Western model than most Middle Eastern countries.

Despite the long-standing tension between the two countries, cultural ties run deep. American universities have historically been a destination for Iranians and are today home to Iranian academics in numerous fields. Among Americans there is an appreciation for Persian and Islamic culture coming from Iranian civilization that demonstrates itself in their respect for Persian art, music and literature such as Rumi's poetry.

Over the past 30 years, many countries inside and outside the Persian Gulf region defined and aligned their national interests and foreign policies based on the existence of hostility between Tehran and Washington. It is understandable that for political and economic reasons many might oppose a change in the status quo, assuming that it would harm their own interests. This anxiety and unease extends beyond the region, and these concerns sometimes translate into efforts to destroy any hope of reconciliation. Another threat to openings in Iranian-U.S. relations comes from radical elements within the two capitals that are sometimes loud enough to undermine or silence those who call for change. Iranian and U.S. officials should strive to address these concerns and to explain that better relations would lead to increased regional stability, economic development, progress in the fight against narco-trafficking, successful efforts to address ideological extremism and a more secure oil flow. It is not just countries in the region that would benefit from these successes.

Washington and Tehran have much to overcome. Yet it is in the interests of Islamic nations and the West that Tehran and Washington try to resolve their disputes. Efforts that include goodwill, engagement and negotiation certainly should be more successful than continued hostility. Even if they do not work, it is still worth trying. The United States has made a start by including Iran in discussions regarding Afghanistan. Iran and the United States should continue trying to open a new chapter in their relations based on their mutual common interests.

Mohammad Hassan Khani is an assistant professor of international relations at Imam Sadiq University in Tehran. He is also a research fellow at the Institute for Political and International Studies.


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