For the past two years Iran and its nuclear program have dominated America’s foreign policy agenda. Iran’s refusal to stop enriching Uranium, which in its opinion it is entitled to as a signatory of the NPT treaty but the West believes, is an effort to develop nuclear weapons and the oft repeated statement by Ahmedinajad that “Israel will soon disappear from the map” have made Iran the number one enemy in the eyes of the West.
But now there seems to be a change taking place in US-Iranian relations and prospects for a detente seem real. Now not only is Ahmedinajad saying nice things about US diplomats, but 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 or else we would have surely witnessed a war against Iran. Lack of domestic appetite for another war which would surely shoot oil prices through the roof has removed the use of force option from the table. The Bush administration after asserting for years that we will not talk to Iran unless it agrees to all our demands is now engaging in direct negotiations. The decision to send William Burns, a very senior US Diplomat, to meet with Iranian 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. The talk that the US might even announce the opening of a US mission in Iran next month, which has already been welcomed by Iranians, is genuinely path breaking. If President Bush follows through, then 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 US and Iran can start normalizing relations, it is important that the mutual demonization that both sides have indulged in be deconstructed. Iran has been painting the US as a “Great Satan” and the source of all evil in the Middle East and the US has consistently labeled Iran as a terrorist sponsor and as a threat to global peace.
Reports from Iran clearly suggest that Iranians are alienated 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 towards their leadership is manifesting in higher regard and esteem for the U.S. negating the anti-US rhetoric of some of its leaders. Azadeh Moaveni wrote in the Washington Post on June 1, 2008 “It might startle some Americans to realize 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 U.S. had become most hostile to the people who were most favorably 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 aircrafts, should be enough to send Ahmedinajad packing in the elections due in 2009.
While Iranians are becoming pro-US, Americans are becoming anti-Iran. In order that the US-Iranian detente flourish it is important that politicians and opinion makers stop demonizing Iran and recognize its positive contributions.
US intelligence agencies are convinced that Iran abandoned its efforts to acquire nukes 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 stabilize southern Iraq and restrain Shii militias in Iraq.
While Ahmedinajad 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 actually do manage Iran’s external affairs. A regular acknowledgement of these realities and positive Iranian contributions will help prepare American 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 U.S., 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 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 hold the line?