CHANGING PATTERNS IN US-IRAN RELATIONS
BY DR. MEHRDAD KHONSARI*
In recent months, the question of a shift in Iran-US relations has been the subject of much speculation. However, since President Mohammad Khatamis interview with the American Cable News Network in early January, these speculations have attained a momentum of their own, despite the fact that it is unlikely for us to witness any significant alteration of the status quo, in the immediate or near term future.
The reason for this projected lack of optimism has more to do with the actual statements that have since been exchanged between Iranian and American officials, all of which have made it clear that the all important government to government talks, crucial in sorting out the differences that have kept these two countries in a state of undeclared war for nearly two decades, continue to remain as evasive as ever before.
Nonetheless, for reasons that may have nothing to do with each other, there has been a marked improvement in the tone of rhetoric used by each state, though it would be wrong to give greater credence to this than it deserves, given each sides own reasons for not wanting to alienate the other.
For Iran the priorities are, first and foremost, to keep the Europeans apart from any complicity with the United States in placing greater economic and political pressures on Iran, while at the same time giving enough cause for potential self serving sympathisers in the US - such as some oil companies and the important personalities who lobby for them - to pursue their own pressures on the US foreign policy community for abandoning such policies as "Dual Containment" and removing the unilateral economic sanctions.
During his interview with CNN, it was apparent that President Khatami was attempting to reap the benefits of a much greater political impact on European leaders, while conducting a mere public relations exercise in trying to present a more human face of the Iranian regime to the American public.
For the US government, the priority at this crucial time has been to keep Iran as neutral as it can, while it attempts to muster the type of regional consensus required for carrying out the military action they seek against Saddam Hussein. Also, the US is trying to inject new life into the Middle East Peace Talks, and any abstention from Iran in causing trouble, is another important consideration.
While, there are important bilateral issues which are of greater long term importance, neither side appears ready for taking the first serious plunge towards their resolution at this time. Indeed, many pundits have compared Mr. Khatamis praise of the "Great American People", as he put it, as the first important step in getting started a type of "ping-pong diplomacy" which served to reopen ruptured ties between the US and China more than a quarter of a century ago.
But, there is perhaps a flaw in making such a comparison given that Iran is not China and the US sees no urgency in wanting to pursue anything other than an open and above board and official contacts - something which it has advocated for a very long time - for discussing the various contentious issues that have plagued relations between the two nations since the fall of the Shahs regime in 1979. However, unless and until both sides have made it clear to themselves what it is that they would satisfactorily get out of any dialogue, the actual time for conducting such a dialogue will not have arrived.
Needless to say that both sides, and in this respect the Iranian side in particular, should in addition also possess the type of clout necessary to enter into some form of a binding agreement, should any such an agreement be reached at any time. Given the types of conflicting views which have been aired from Teheran by senior officials since Mr. Khatamis initiative with CNN, it is again obvious that such an atmosphere for wanting to resolve differences with the US does not yet exist in Iran, and many powerful forces within the country would see any softening of attitude towards the US as a beginning of the demise of the Islamic Republic and the policies which it has advanced since 1979.
But, here, there are signs that the Islamic fundamentalist agenda promoted by Ayatollah (Ruhollah) Khomeiny during his lifetime, has been dead and buried for some time. Most recently, this was vividly demonstrated by postures taken by the Khatami government during the course of the last Islamic Summit Conference in Teheran, where it became clear that the Islamic regime was much more conciliatory, in yet another clear signal aimed at getting American pressures off its back.
More over, the unexpected election in May last year of President Mohammad Khatami has brought with it, the expectation of serious change in the way that the Iranian government behaves towards its own subjects as well as the manner in which it conducts its relations with the international community.
Some observers might even agree that his election was in fact a life saver for a regime that was fast running out of steam, in an atmosphere of continuing economic decline and increasing international isolation.
It is indeed a fact that barely 6 weeks before Mr. Khatamis election on 23rd of May, in an unprecedented move, never to have been seen in modern international relations between two nations not at war with each other, a court of law in Germany had officially named the leaders of another country as co-conspirators in a terrible plot that had led to the assassination of a number of Iranian dissidents in the now famous "Mykonos" restaurant in Berlin.
. Under these circumstances, Mr. Khatamis election was secured, mainly because of his promise for change and reform. Most importantly, his election has served in many ways for clearing the board, and giving the new administration in Teheran a new opportunity for trying to set a new political agenda that could help free Iran from the type of unproductive policies that has alienated millions at home, while creating a pariah image for the nation abroad.
Indeed, it is under these new circumstances that the whole question of re-examining Iran-US relations has become a factor for consideration. But in so doing, it is also important to bear in mind that great many factors, particularly from the Iranian side, still remain unknown.
The most prominent of these is of course, the exact political agenda which President Khatami intends to implement. While, he deserves a full year in office, before any valid conclusions concerning his true intentions, can objectively be made, it is, in my opinion, a serious mistake on the part of all parties, both foreign and domestic, to place any hope on mere signs and insinuations aimed at substituting for clear and conscience statements of policy and intent.
Also, taking into consideration the fact that foreign policy of any nation cannot be divorced from domestic considerations, it is therefore obvious that neither Iran, nor the US, can proceed on any road aimed at improving or even altering the current status quo, without taking into consideration important domestic factors as well.
In this respect, it is important to take note of the fact that in Iran any foreign policy initiative vis-a-vis the United States, cannot proceed independent of the views held by the Islamic Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, former President (ayatollah) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who now heads the newly enhanced Expediency Council, and of course the all important Islamic Majles or parliament, where the important defeated presidential candidate, the Majles Speaker, (ayatollah Ali Akbar). Nategh-Nouri sits with a commanding majority.
Similarly in the United States, an important development since the termination of the Cold War, has been the new role which has been assumed by the US Congress in pursuing a more independent agenda in the sphere of foreign affairs, as best exemplified by the passage of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which has been the source of innumerable problems for the Clinton Administration, particularly in view of its relations with its European allies and partners.
Whether he does this, free of all previous ambiguities, could well serve as an important litmus test concerning his intentions. The future of the Iran-US relations will depend also very much on how Iran satisfies the demands of the Iranian expatriate community and human rights activists in terms of the treatment of its own people.
It would seem that until such time that the current Iraq crisis has been resolved, Washington is likely to hold off on any new Iran initiative of its own. If the US limits its actions against Iraq to military strikes, then one could expect that in time the Dual Containment Policy would be scrapped in favour of a policy whereby Iran would be allowed to balance off Iraq, for the purposes of which the US would be willing to pursue a course that would, in time, lead to better relations with Iran.
As far as oil and business is concerned, the potential of Iran as a magnet for US business interests, be it trade or investment, as a whole is an exaggeration. Moreover, the current glut of oil in the world market, as highlighted by recent declines in its price, makes Iranian oil dispensable at a time when OPEC production levels feed the over-supply situation all the more.
Nonetheless, there are major oil and gas companies with serious interests in constructing various pipelines through Iranian territory, for the exploitation and marketing of newly developed oil and gas in Central Asia and the Caucasus. So long as Saddam Hussein remains in power, and these companies are denied access to the much more lucrative and highly rewarding petroleum resources in Iraq, these quarters could potentially be mobilised to speed matters up in Washington.
On the other hand, based on economic realities alone, there is a much greater sense of urgency for Iran to move in the direction removing tensions with the US, thereby clearing the way for the injection of unimpeded and badly needed Western capital and technology for the regeneration of the countrys stagnant and declining economy.
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