Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 July - 6 August 2008
Issue No. 908
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Time for US-Iran détente

Finally common sense in US-Iran relations appears to be breaking the clouds, writes Muqtedar Khan*

For the past two years Iran and its nuclear programme have dominated America's foreign policy agenda. Iran's refusal to halt enriching uranium, which in its opinion it is entitled to do as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but that the West believes is an effort to develop nuclear weapons, and the oft repeated statement by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that, "Israel will soon disappear from the map" have made Iran enemy number one in the eyes of the West.

But now there seems to be a change occurring in US-Iranian relations and prospects for détente seem real. Now not only is Ahmadinejad saying nice things about US diplomats, but also Iran is responding positively to US overtures.

American failures in Iraq, in Afghanistan, on energy pricing, in housing and financial markets, in addition to the weakening of the dollar, have handcuffed the Bush administration. Else we would have surely witnessed a war against Iran. Lack of domestic appetite for another war that would surely shoot oil prices further through the roof has removed the use of force option from the table. The Bush administration, after asserting for years that it will not talk to Iran unless it agrees to all Western demands, is now engaging in direct negotiations. The decision to send William Burns, a very senior US diplomat, to meet with Iran's nuclear negotiator along with Europeans last week clearly signals a significant shift in US policy.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this is an isolated episode or the beginning of a new modality in US-Iran relations. Talk that the US might even announce the opening of a US "interests section" in Iran next month, which has already been welcomed by the Iranians, is genuinely path breaking. If President Bush follows through, there is no doubt in my mind that Iran could become an important partner of the US in shaping the emerging Middle East.

But before the US and Iran can start normalising relations it is important that the mutual demonisation that both sides have indulged in be deconstructed. Iran has been painting the US as a "Great Satan" and the source of all evils in the Middle East while the US has consistently labelled Iran as a terrorist sponsor and as a threat to global peace.

Reports from Iran clearly suggest that Iranians are alienated from, and disgusted with, their own leadership and its failure to provide better governance and to deliver on populist promises made in electoral speeches. Their resentment is manifesting in higher regard and esteem for the US, negating the anti-US rhetoric of some of Iran's leaders. Azadeh Moaveni wrote in The Washington Post, 1 June 2008, "it might startle some Americans to realise that Iran has one of the most pro- American populations in the Middle East."

Scholars of the Middle East have repeatedly pointed out this paradox of US foreign policy. The US had become most hostile to the people who were most favourably disposed towards the US in the Middle East. It will take little to win the Iranians over. A gesture of friendship from Bush, a surprise visit to Tehran by Rice, or a gift of six passenger aircraft, should be enough to send Ahmadinejad packing in the elections due in 2009.

While Iranians are becoming pro-US, Americans are becoming anti-Iran. In order that US-Iranian détente flourish it is important that politicians and opinion makers stop demonising Iran and recognise its positive contributions.

US intelligence agencies are convinced that Iran abandoned its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons in 2003 (National Intelligence Estimate, November 2007). Iran helped Western powers in establishing the new government and democracy in Afghanistan and has cooperated with the US to stabilise southern Iraq and restrain Shia militias in Iraq. While Ahmadinejad does rant about making Israel disappear, he is not in charge of Iranian foreign or military policy and his claims are not repeated by those who do manage Iran's external affairs. Acknowledgement of these realities and positive Iranian contributions will help prepare US public opinion for better US-Iranian relations.

The perception that a nuclear Iran ruled by a madman poses a major threat to the world is the driving force behind Western paranoia about Iran. A sensible foreign policy from Washington is not possible until this misperception is deconstructed. Iran is not a threat; it is not capable of posing a serious threat. Iran's air force is defunct. Its economy is in a bad shape. High oil prices do not help Iran too much since it is a net importer of gasoline and its crude oil exports are inferior to its competitors. Add to this the fact that the US, France, Britain and Israel all have powerful air forces and huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Additionally Islamic Iran has not invaded any country for any reason since the revolution in 1979; a record that neither the US nor Israel can match given the US's unnecessary invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Israel's overreaction in Lebanon in 2006.

Both Iran and the US now have an extraordinary opportunity to change their mutual destinies. Will they?

* The writer is director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

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