The positive side of the new US-Iranian dialogue

IT is unfortunate that, after several years of estrangement, the first high-level US-Iranian contacts were prompted by the United States' desire to free its citizens held hostage in Beirut and by Iran's desperate need for US-made military spare parts. Thus the US-Iranian dialogue appears to be nothing more than a cynical swap of arms for hostages. The so-called Iranian deal has raised eyebrows, as critics argue that swapping anything, let alone arms, for hostages encourages terrorism. This argument has great merit. But the dilemma involved applies to all efforts to free hostages and not just to this particular deal. Indeed, long-term US interests in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East will be ill served if US-Iranian contacts are interpreted solely as an arms-for-hostages swap. These contacts need to be placed in a broader context. Viewed that way, they represent a positive development.

These contacts indicate that Americans and Iranians have broken a psychological barrier that had kept them from dealing with each other. They indicate that pragmatic groups and personalities in Iran recognize the reality of US global power and presence, plus the need for Iran, finally, to come to terms with it. And they enable the US to open channels of communication to certain Iranian figures who will play key roles in determining Iran's domestic and foreign policies in the post-Khomeini era.

Most important, however, these contacts have forced American decision- and opinionmakers to think about Iran in terms other than the threat of Muslim fundamentalism and the security of the Persian Gulf Arab states. Now, one hopes, US decisionmakers will have to think about Iran's future and about the impact on vital US interests of various scenarios for post-Khomeini developments in Iran.

For several years, this perspective has been sorely lacking. It has been further compounded by exaggeration of Iran's threat to overrun Iraq, destabilize Persian Gulf Arab states, or unleash fundamentalist forces elsewhere in the Middle East. In fact, Iran faces severe political, military, ethnic, religious, and linguistic constraints in its efforts to destabilize Gulf Arab societies. Nor can it direct and control the activities of Sunni fundamentalists, who are far more prevalent than Shias.

In the Persian Gulf Arab states, in particular, Sunni fundamentalists are anti-Shia and anti-Iranian. By and large, they support existing Sunni governments. Within Gulf Shia communities, as well, divisions exist between Shias of Iranian as opposed to Arab origin, and Iran's ability to influence Gulf Arab Shias is limited. It is also doubtful that Iran will determine the ultimate fate of the Muslim fundamentalist trend. It did not create the phenomenon and could not end fundamentalism even if it wanted to do so.

Of course, one should not ignore Iranian activities or underestimate their potential threat both to Iraq and to the security of the Gulf Arab states. But legitimate concerns should be balanced by consideration of threats that developments within Iran could post to US interests. During the last few years, most US policymakers have taken for granted Iran's continued territorial and political existence, plus its independence from the Soviet Union.

In view of Iran's economic and social difficulties, political divisions, and separate ethnic groups, the dangers of civil war in Iran or Iran's possible disintegration must not be treated lightly. Although many US decisionmakers believe that Islamic fundamentalism, not communism, is the real threat in the Middle East, it is risky to underestimate the Soviet threat to Iran. This does not imply a Soviet invasion. But given the Soviets' geographic proximity and links to Iran's ethnic minorities and political elements, such as leftist forces, Moscow is in a good position to exploit Iran's difficulties.

Even if that scenario does not materialize, there are considerable risks of a much closer relationship between Iran and the Soviet Union which would confer on Moscow a privileged position.

Influential elements within the Iranian regime favor closer relations with the Soviet Union and the Eastern-bloc countries. Experience, as during 1980-81, shows that worsening economic conditions, along with Western economic and political pressures, tend to produce rapprochement between Iran and the Soviet Union. Iran's recent economic problems have been a primary motive behind its latest improvement in relations with Moscow. This culminated last summer in an agreement providing for resumption of Iranian natural gas exports to the Soviet Union, the return of Russian experts to Iran, and other economic agreements that include joint oil exploration in the Caspian Sea.

An Iranian turn toward the Soviet Union would be a major strategic loss to the US. Once they gained significant influence in Iran, the Soviets would be much more able to consolidate their position in Afghanistan. Pakistan would come under greater pressure to accommodate Moscow. The Persian Gulf Arabs would have to be much more forthcoming toward the Soviets.

Of course, the US might not be able to prevent either Iran's internal disintegration or its domination by the Soviet Union. It can, however, at least be aware of these threats and not increase the risks through its regional policies and attitude toward Iran.

The US should begin by balancing its concern for the security of the Gulf Arab states with greater awareness of, and attention to, potential threats emanating from developments in Iran. Equally important, it must recognize the diversity of trends and opinions within the Iranian leadership and keep open its channels of communication to the moderate factions. To be sure, it is a long way from here to there - from a time of no contacts to productive relations. But the vital interests of the US and the West could depend on the ultimate success of this effort.

Shireen T. Hunter is deputy director of the Middle East Project at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Affairs.

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