It's Time for the US and Iran to Sit Down and Talk

When I was a hostage in Iran, often venting my frustration with those who held us, one of the more friendly of them would sometimes try to reassure us by reciting a Persian proverb: Nothing ever stays the same forever.

It will soon be 20 years since Iran and the United States had an official relationship. While that may not rank as forever in relations between states, it is a long time. But recent signals back and forth between the two governments, however tentative, suggest that perhaps the Persian proverb may have some relevance. It should: America's interests are ill served by what prevails today.

President Mohammad Khatami, in his CNN interview, after asserting that Iran does not need official relations with the US, spoke instead of educational, cultural, and other private exchanges, to begin to widen a crack in the "wall of distrust" that exists between the two countries.

Soon thereafter, the US posed "no objection" to American wrestlers traveling to Iran; they found an enthusiastic welcome, as do, without exception, those few American tourists visiting there. Current restrictions on Iranians seeking visas to enter the US are said to be under review. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi tells the press that the ball is in the US court.

President Clinton, in a message to Iran at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, noted with regret the "estrangement" between the two countries and said while the US has real differences with some Iranian policies, "these are not insurmountable" - the most positive public statement from the US side in years.

Not that widening the crack will be easy. A 20-year legacy of distrust is not easily overcome. Both governments have major concerns about the other's policies. They are well known and long recited, to the point where they have become holy writ.

Mr. Khatami's freedom of movement is constrained by the contest for both political and Islamic ascendancy under way in the body politic of Iran. But clearly there is something new in the air - a sense that perhaps something may be possible, that neither side can afford continued confrontation.

On the Iranian side, Khatami certainly knows that private exchanges risk inevitably putting pressure on him to consider openings in official contacts, too. Moreover, his assertion that Iran doesn't need the latter is nonsense. Surely he knows better - the state of Iran's economy alone dictates that need, not to mention the reality of the American political/military presence in the Gulf region that is not going away soon.

And on the American side, the current crisis with Iraq must certainly have triggered a new awareness among policymakers of the reality of Iran for our strategic interests in the region. A country with the potential for regional dominance in the Persian Gulf, long a major crossroads east and west, and now a place of some north/south consequences for both the oil and politics of Central Asia, is one with whose government the US must somehow find a way to deal directly. How else can our differences be addressed and our interests furthered?

The challenge for serious-minded realists on both sides is how to exploit the still small openings beginning to appear. Both governments have begun lowering their rhetoric - the first essential for any attempt at dialogue. Both can benefit from greater private exchanges, to nurture the common ground they share in human terms - not least, the fact that the US is today the second largest Persian speaking country in the world.

But it is well past time to more actively seek official exchanges - at the outset simply finding a place, preferably out of sight, to sit down and talk, in the first instance simply about how to talk, without preconditions. The halls of the UN and other multilateral sessions provide one venue. UN Ambassador Bill Richardson marveled recently to the press that he and Mr. Kharrazi had actually shaken hands at a multilateral conference in Davos, Switzerland. Perhaps it is time for both governments to consider emulating what the Israelis and Palestinians did - sending entrusted emissaries off to a place like Oslo, or Geneva, or Helsinki, to explore whether they could at least try to put together an agenda on how to begin an official dialogue.

Nothing should stay the same forever. When it does, things atrophy, to the interest of no one. It is time for a change.

* Bruce Laingen is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington.

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