So What's Behind Iran's Overture to the US?

For nearly two decades, Iran has been fond of calling the United States the "Great Satan." But now its president, Mohammad Khatami, evidently wants better relations, including exchanges of scholars, artists, and tourists.

This raises an intriguing question: Why would he make such a move at the risk of provoking Iran's influential religious leaders and elements of its public? While it is obviously not possible to read his mind, seven reasons can be offered.

First, in part, President Khatami is responding to a US overture launched last August, after his inauguration. Through a Swiss intermediary, US officials signaled a desire for better relations. For Khatami, that may well have meant that his risk-taking could pay some dividends.

Second, the global economy has been transformed, particularly in the past 25 years. Some analysts refer to this as globalization, or the development of a more integrated global economy marked by higher trade, foreign direct investment, and economic cooperation. A growing view is that countries that actively participate in such an economy reap economic benefits, while those sidelined fall behind.

Iran has been one of the most isolated countries in the world, and it clearly wants to score such benefits. Even Khatami's predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, repeatedly stressed the importance of economics over ideology and confrontation - something not lost on many Russians, Chinese, and others who've jumped on the globalization train. Khatami appears to be joining this caravan.

Third, related to the second point, we sometimes forget that Iran fought a tragic and economically devastating war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988. In a July 1989 speech, Mr. Rafsanjani, who was then speaker of the Iranian parliament, revealed that Iran spent some 60 to 70 percent of the country's income on the war. Estimates suggest that the war put Iran's economy behind by two decades. Iran needs Western support and economic interaction for purposes of reconstruction.

Fourth, at the domestic level, many of Iran's commercial elite want an opening to the US. While Iran's trade with the European Union is generally in the $5 billion range, it's under $60 million with the US, which boasts the world's largest and, given the turmoil in Asia, most stable markets.

Fifth, if Saddam Hussein unnerves faraway Americans, he does so doubly with next-door Iranians. Improved relations with the US, Saddam's chief military opponent, increases Iran's strategic leverage. It also can yield economic benefits that in turn can strengthen Iran's military, further deterring Saddam and offering Iran a basis for regional influence.

Sixth, the US and Iran share an interest in seeing the Afghanistan conflict end, and possibly in exploring and assuring safe transit of Central Asian oil.

Finally, Khatami's action is buttressed by a slow-growing grassroots movement to liberalize Iranian politics, reflected in various elections leading up to Khatami's decisive victory. Like former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Khatami may be counting in part on popular support to challenge unpopular institutions and conservative orthodoxy.

While Khatami's overture is bold, in some ways it's part of a trend. Iran has tried to break its isolation several times since the 1979 revolution. In 1984, Ayatollah Khomeini, under war pressures and interested in obtaining international support, engineered a reversal in Iran's foreign policy in which Iran would stop actively confronting the West and exporting the revolution regionally. After the Gulf War, Iran, while still flouting the world community in many ways, also sought to develop economic relations with the West and improve its relations with Arab Gulf states.

WHAT Khatami appears thus far to add to this trend, however, is in part a greater openness, and an emphasis on US relations. It is possible that he believes the road to the global economy now runs partly through Washington.

If this analysis is on target, his opening is real and not evanescent. This is because it is driven by domestic and global economic pressures, regional security concerns, and popular support, which won't soon go away. Whether Khatami can translate this momentum into real results, despite his conservative detractors, is now one of the more important questions of Middle East and world affairs.

* Steve Yetiv is a political science professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

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