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    Middle East
     Apr 8, 2006
Mission impossible? True US-Iran dialogue
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

The US decision to hold a direct dialogue with Tehran over Iraq coupled with a policy of isolating Iran over the nuclear-weapons issue and Washington's often-stated goal of regime change might seem like mission impossible, yet some decision-makers in Washington would argue that under the present circumstances these objectives can in fact be pursued simultaneously.

But no matter what transpires from the dialogue over Iraq, the administration of US President George W Bush faces a problem about

if and how really to pursue the policy of regime change in Iran, which has been formally articulated under the guise of a new US$75 million fund to undermine the rule of the theocrats and promote democracy in Iran that was announced recently by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Many in the US Congress, pushing for a similar result under the rubric of the Iran Freedom Act, argue that by opting to have any kind of dialogue with Iran, the Bush administration might be diverted from what they consider the real mission. Some US lawmakers insist that the US should recognize the exiled opposition group the People's Mujahideen Organization (Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK), even though it is deemed a terrorist organization by the Department of State.

For the moment, however, enough concrete signals have been received from Tehran to confirm a positive reaction to the US overtures. These were initially expressed by Rice at a congressional hearing last October, wherein she stated that she had authorized the US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad to meet with his Iranian counterpart. Subsequently, Khalilzad confirmed that both the president and the secretary of state had given him explicit authorization for this purpose.

As of this writing, the date and time of the dialogue have not been finalized and, by all indications, both sides are engaged in an intense pre-talks session, sending mixed feelers toward each other and demonstrating that they have both arrived at a rather awkward moment in which neither party quite knows how to begin.

For instance, no sooner had the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei given his blessing to the dialogue than a US spokesperson raised questions about "the curious timing" and suggested that Iran's decision was due to the international pressure over the nuclear issue. In turn, through its mission to the United Nations, Iran reacted rather negatively, reminding everyone that Tehran had not initiated the idea of dialogue.

Hence the fate of the dialogue is contingent on the state of the Iraq crisis, or the nuclear crisis, each of which tends to act as a brake on the other. The fact that the Arab world has also raised serious questions about the talks between Iran and the US over their heads cannot be altogether ignored either, even though, objectively speaking, the Arabs should welcome any thaw in the US-Iran relations. It is bound to benefit the cause of peace in the Middle East.

At this stage the most important thing the two parties can do is set the ground rules for a constructive dialogue, one that will be something more than a "dialogue of the deaf" where both sides talk past each other. Dialogue is a style of communication that, to quote the philosopher Martin Buber, encourages "tolerance and civility". There is a huge difference, however, between a genuine two-way engagement on the one hand and a distorted, pseudo-monological dialogue on the other.

Another problem is somehow to insulate the issue of US-Iran dialogue and/or rapprochement from the competitive contingencies of electoral politics in both the US and Iran, which have so far proved yet another brake on the omnibus of such a dialogue.

Lessons from the past
Unfortunately, for the past quarter of a century, US-Iran relations have been predominantly, though by no means exclusively, of a monological nature - the 2001 dialogue on Afghanistan being an exception. Both sides have dwelt mainly on points of disagreement, have subsumed dialogue to their conflicting geostrategic jockeying and have evinced studied indifference to the other side's interests and concerns. In the worst of times, they have wrapped their direct or indirect dialogue in comparative discourses of antagonism and even annihilation.

One of Iran's enduring complaints, most recently aired by Iran's envoy to the UN on the popular television program The Charlie Rose Show, is that all Iran got for its cooperation on the anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 was to be labeled a part of the "axis of evil" in President Bush's January 2002 State of the Union speech. There is, in other words, a thick residue of distrust by both sides that would require a tremendous effort to overcome.

Learning from the past can come in handy today, in light of the rather endless series of half-steps stretching back to the hostage crisis of 1979. Ideally, both Washington and Tehran need to express an explicit desire to improve relations with each other, as the very manifestation of such a desire is a powerful antidote to the harsh polemics of the past. Clearly, significant hurdles on the path of rapprochement remain and, as a result, a further deterioration of relations is by no means improbable.

Suggested ground rules
1. Each side must strive for a clear understanding of the other side's interests as well as problems. This is both a precondition and a result of dialogue, and it requires serious homework in advance. Thus, for example, the US must put the recent impressive week-long military exercise in the Persian Gulf in the context of Iran's post-September 2001 security worries, instead of misconstruing them as a sign of militarism or offensive purposes.

2. Each side should have a clear understanding of its own interests and priorities. This implies an eagerness to articulate one's position and a willingness to have it scrutinized. Part of the United States' problem, therefore, is to engage in some strenuous intramural debate about the long-term purpose of its military presence in Iraq: Is it designed mainly as an anti-Iran deterrence force or something else?

As for Iran, there is need for much greater public debate on whether or not the time for normalization of relations with the US has arrived and how this is likely to impact Iran's national interests. With respect to Iraq and its current dangerous descent toward a civil war and the potential for spillover into Iran and other neighboring countries, both sides need to express their determination to halt this unwanted situation in favor of peace and stability in the region.

3. Each side must work to "water down" differences with the other side. This can be achieved by analytically distinguishing between differences, separating those that preclude normalization from those that can be accepted within normal diplomatic relations. Examples of this can be found in the diplomatic history of both countries, such as America's relations with Russia and China and Iran's relations with the other Persian Gulf states. This distinction helps to winnow the list of differences and rank them either as corresponding interests, such as combating terrorism; conflicting interests, such as US unilateralism in the Gulf and parallel interests, such as Gulf stability, Iraq's national unity and the containment of Iraq's civil strife.

There is always the possibility that some of the differences may turn out to be less divisive than hitherto thought, such as the Iranian antipathy to a transitional US-led multinational military presence until the situation in Iraq is stabilized. In light of this possibility, each side must exhibit a genuine willingness to revise its understanding and interpretation of the other side. A chief prerequisite for all this is Washington's understanding that stability is not a one-way phenomenon, and that US power does not by itself necessarily guarantee stability.

As with China, US relations with Iran will most likely be buffeted by various problems for the foreseeable future with or without diplomatic normalization. Yet instead of coercive diplomacy, the US would be well advised to implement the options of conciliation and negotiation.

4. Each side must maintain a constant willingness to engage in sustained, constructive dialogue instead of half-hearted attempts without meaningful follow-ups. To minimize the effects of discontinuity, a preliminary roadmap for dialogue agreed upon by both sides is needed, so that a movement toward improved relations is not stalled by any counter-dialogue momentum it generates. Also, it requires a continuous "positive signaling" that incrementally prepares public opinion in both countries for normalization. A good example is an opinion article by Iran's envoy to the UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif, reiterating Iran's anti-nuclear-weapons stance that was published simultaneously in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.

5. Both sides must strive to engage in dialogue in good faith. This means avoiding public arguments over who made the first move, as well as avoiding the perception that dialogue is for political "expediency" and not aimed at the possibility of any eventual good emerging from the discussions. Unfortunately, the climate for US-Iran dialogue today is rife with serious misgivings about the other side's motives and characterized by a running mill of accusations and counter-accusations.

Some elements in the US recently attacked Iran for allegedly being a haven for al-Qaeda terrorists, and this author was struck, in the course of listening to a recent interview by the Voice of America, about how determined are the efforts to make this allegation stick at this sensitive juncture. In response, the author pointed at the varying positions of the UN Security Council's Committee Concerning al-Qaeda, Taliban, and the Associated Individuals and Entities, praising Iran's cooperation with this committee.

In conclusion, lingering suspicion about motives can be cleared away by deepening the process of dialogue and broadening its scope by initiating a North Korea multilateral dialogue, for instance. Questions about the motives and intentions can be cleared up, however, only when the discrete issue of Iraq's stability is telescoped into the larger issues blocking normalization. Perpetuation of ill-will between the two countries is guaranteed as long as they continue to shun direct dialogue on the "mother of all issues" - the nuclear issue.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He is also author of Iran's Nuclear Program:DebatingFactsVersusFiction .

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