Iran, U.S. step cautiously toward dialogue
Signals from both Tehran and Washington are often misinterpreted and the subject of attack on the domestic stages in both countries.
The language from both Tehran and Washington seems as bellicose as ever. This week, an Iranian general said aggression against his country will start a "world war" and Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama vowed that if elected he would not allow Iran to box Israel "into a corner."Skip to next paragraph
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But a look behind much of the public rhetoric coming from the United States and Iran reveals that both countries, while still bitterly at odds over many issues, are taking increasingly bold steps to foster dialogue.
"America has no choice but to look to Iran for dialogue" to help solve crises in Iraq, Lebanon, the Middle East peace process, and Iran's own nuclear issue, says Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's former ambassador to Paris.
"But they want that dialogue without paying a price," says Mr. Kharazi. "Why does America [on one hand] make positive language, but on another put a lot of sanctions upon Iran? This is a double-standard [so] there isn't any trust on the Iranian side."
Nor is there much trust on the US side, where Iran's nuclear power program is seen as a cover to build nuclear weapons and Iran is accused of aiding Shiite militias in Iraq.
The numerous "signals" crafted by each side are prone to misinterpretation or attacked at home as evidence of "weakness." And the possibilities are complicated by the upcoming US election and the June 2009 contest in which Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be up for reelection.
The Bush administration has toned down talk of a "regime change" and threats of military strikes, and even floated the idea of staffing the US interests section in Tehran – currently run by Switzerland – with American diplomats for the first time since the 1979-1980 hostage crisis. In July, the US sent senior diplomat William Burns to Geneva to hear Iran give a response to an incentives package to convince Iran to suspend uranium enrichment.
Each side feels today that they can negotiate from a position of strength: Iran's regional influence has risen since the US removed next-door foes Saddam Hussein and the Taliban; the US because it has helped engineer some positive gains in Iraq for the first time in five years. But many suspicions remain.