Iran is the only country in the world that refuses to have formal contact with U.S. officials. Even officials from North Korea and Cuba meet with the United States, as the Soviet Union did during the height of the Cold War. Until this fundamental and anachronistic diplomatic obstacle is overcome, it is difficult to see how several "red button" issues that bedevil the U.S.-Iranian relationship can be addressed, let alone resolved. Nevertheless, it is in the long-run interests for both Iran and the United States to seek a rapprochement.
If the relationship were improved, the benefits to both sides would be considerable. Given its huge oil and gas resources, the Persian Gulf will remain a strategic prize for the foreseeable future. Iran has great geopolitical importance on account of its size, geography, and resources. It is an important Muslim country, with a long and impressive cultural history in the region. Iran, under the Shah, was considered the key pillar of U.S. strategy in the Gulf. Better U.S.-Iranian relations would loosen the growing ties between Russia and Iran and would open the Iranian energy sector to U.S. and other international companies. Under such conditions, it would be easier for Iran and the United States to find some accommodation on the Arab-Israeli peace process as well as issues of weapons proliferation and could increase regional pressures on Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.
Until the political crisis in Iran between reformists and conservatives is more muted, however, no significant change in U.S.-Iranian relations can be expected. This does not require that the reformers win an outright victory over the conservatives. What is required is that relations with the United States cease to be the "third rail" of Iranian politics. Currently any individual or group who advocates better political relations with the United States is immediately castigated and threatened by the conservatives. It is, of course, possible that some of the more pragmatic conservatives in Iran would be prepared for positive change with the United States if they believed it would help to perpetuate their control of key Iranian political, security, and economic institutions. Because reformers have overwhelming public support, however, the conservatives are on the defensive. The conservatives hope that these conditions will change if the economy continues to weaken and President Mohammad Khatami and his majority in Parliament are eventually blamed for hard times.
Once the United States and Iran are able to talk to each other, six "red button" issues need to be addressed:
* historic grievances,
* the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf,
* Iran's weapons programs,
* Iran's opposition to Israel and the peace process, and
* U.S. energy sanctions on Iran.
Because, by definition, the "red button" problems are the hardest ones to address, it might be preferable for the two countries to first address what could be termed "green button" issues--those on which agreements may be possible. Examples include improvements in visa procedures for travel between the United States and Iran, cooperation on narcotics smuggling, the stability of South Asia, Saddam's weapons programs, joint energy projects, and cultural and unofficial exchanges.
The Makings of a Reform Movement
To understand the difficulties of orchestrating a rapprochement, it is useful to review the developments over the past three years and why they have been both promising and frustrating. Until May 23, 1997, the day of Kharami's unexpected and dramatic election as president of Iran, the Clinton administration's policy toward the Islamic Republic was increasingly punitive and harsh. Although U.S. policy was nominally in favor of an official dialogue with authorized Iranian spokesmen, the United States intensified its pressure against Iran in the weeks before the elections, hoping to enroll key European Union (EU) countries into taking tougher steps against the clerical regime. The motive in this case was a decision of the German courts in April 1997 that found Iranian political leaders, including then President Hashemi Rafsanjani, guilty of conspiracy to conduct terrorism in Europe against Iranian-Kurdish dissidents who had been assassinated by the regime's hit men at the Mykonos Cafe in Berlin in 1992. Up to th at time, the Europeans had pursued their own distinctively accommodationist policy toward Iran under the rubric of "critical dialogue," a concept that was instituted at the EU Edinburgh summit in December 1992.
Khatami's election ended all hope for more punitive measures and, instead, prompted a reexamination of U.S.-Iranian policy. During the summer of 1997, a vigorous debate ensued regarding how the United States should adapt its policy given that no fundamental changes had been instituted in Iran, except that the new president smiled. Nevertheless, Khatami surprised everyone, including his own conservative opponents, when in a CNN interview in January 1998 he called for a "crack in the wall of mistrust" between the United States and Iran by exchanging writers, scholars, artists, and thinkers. This speech was followed by a flurry of enthusiasm in the United States as several congressmen and numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) swamped the Iranian Mission in New York for requests for visas to visit Iran. Those of us who did get a visa and visited Iran--in the case of the author in February 1998--were amazed at the openness found in Tehran and the desire of many Iranians, particularly the young, to talk and engage Americans about policy. In addition, a visiting U.S. wrestling team was given a warm welcome in February before a huge crowd of ordinary Iranian citizens.
The most senior official to deliver a formal U.S. response came at the Asia Society in New York in June 1998, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called for the United States and Iran to bring down the walls of mistrust between the two countries so that …