U.S.-Iran Relations: Normalization in the Future?

Article excerpt

Key Points

Since World War II, few countries have been of greater strategic concern to the United States than Iran. Whether as a dependable friend and preeminent regional partner or as an implacable enemy, Iran has occupied a special place in U.S. security thinking. It exerts influence on a range of important policy issues--from the Middle East peace process to post-Taliban Afghanistan--and when it acquires nuclear weapons capability within the next decade, it could become a significant factor driving U.S. and regional government policies on proliferation.

Since September 11, there has been much speculation in both countries about the possibility of a new opening in relations. Like America, Iran wants an Iraq without Saddam Hussein, Afghanistan under a stable government, and Central Asia absent Russian control of borders and resources. Yet dramatic breakthroughs in U.S.-Iran relations appear unlikely. Iran's reformist and conservative camps may be actively debating whether rapprochement with the United States is in Tehran's future, but no signs indicate that the conditions for achieving normalcy would be minimally acceptable to Washington.

U.S. options must encompass several factors that shape decisionmaking in today's Iran: the rise of Persian nationalism, the consensus among leaders on foreign and security issues, the weakness of President Mohammad Khatami in the face of conservative obstacles to reform, fears of encirclement, and a bias toward self-sufficiency in defense posture. American policy can open a door, but Tehran must decide if and when to walk through it.

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The Burden of History

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the United States has tried to find a framework for understanding this enigmatic country. America defended its commitments to help an ailing Shah in exile but was ill prepared to deal with the crises that raged in and around Iran in the 1980s: U.S. diplomats were held hostage in Tehran for 444 days, militant clerics tried to export revolutionary Islamic governance across the Gulf, and Iraq invaded Iran, ostensibly to stave off a Shiah Islamist tidal wave.

During this period, U.S. policy toward Iran was relatively uncomplicated. Iran under the mullahs had tilted the balance of power in the Gulf by threatening its neighbors, encouraging antiregime liberation groups, and supporting terrorist groups determined not only to overthrow so-called anachronistic regimes but also to eliminate foreign presence from the region by targeting American, British, and French interests. Iran was branded a pariah and embargoed from receiving outside military or investment assistance. This policy would later be called containment. In the 1980s, it meant helping Iraq in the 8-year war, reflagging Gulf shipping, banning arms sales to Iran, and trying to free nearly two dozen Western hostages held by pro-Iranian terrorist factions in Lebanon. U.S. efforts to find a "moderate" Iranian leader with whom it could deal rather than a "radical" were met with scorn.

After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Iran began a process of institutional and attitudinal shifts--some perceptible, some imperceptible, especially to the American eye. The focus of power shifted from the person of the Grand Ayatollah to the offices of the Supreme Leader, a cleric chosen by Khomeini to serve for life, and to the secular (but still clerical) president, both of whom lacked the charisma and credentials of a Grand Ayatollah. In addition, Iran began looking toward the Gulf and Europe for commercial contacts, financial investment, and diplomatic networks. Meanwhile, U.S. containment of Iran became more institutionalized. Iran was to be kept in isolation under sanctions until it renounced support for international terrorism, stopped opposing the Middle East peace process, and ceased efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Iran responded with demands that the U. …