IT is understandable that the United States should be upset with Iran. Iran's holding of 52 American hostages from November 1979 until January 1981 is not easy to forget. Neither are the televised efforts of Iranian leaders, still vivid in memory, to solidify support for their regime by using the United States as a whipping boy. Nevertheless, it is time for the US to begin the lengthy process of changing its approach toward Iran. It is in America's own interest to do so: By its strong and emotional opposition to today's Iran, the US is in danger of alienating an entire generation of young Iranians.
Americans should remember that Iran has a population of more than 42 million, and that only a relatively small number are involved in forming or carrying out the policies of the clerical regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
America -- both government and people -- should work to separate its emotional feelings about Iran from its rational views of that troubled nation and its policies.
Not all of the Khomeini government's policies have been disastrous, from the Western perspective. It has not given the Soviet Union a significant foothold within Iran. With frontiers on Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, and the Persian Gulf, Iran is in a key strategic position: It could be a gateway toward the Middle East oil fields for the Soviet Union, if that nation could gain influence in Tehran.
But the West should begin now to prepare to deal with Iran in the post-Khomeini era, although no major accommodation is in prospect until that time. None can tell what the next government of Iran will be like. It could see a continuation of authority of people now around Khomeini. Or some different group may seize power, possibly one aligned with the Soviet Union.
In any case a period of some turmoil may well occur, during which pressures might be strong in two directions, both of which should concern the United States. One is the possibility that the new leaders would seek some rapprochement with the Soviet Union, thereby giving the Soviets their long-sought foothold in the area.
The second is the prospect that turmoil in Iran, combined with factional tensions in the region and pressure from Iraq, could result in some splintering of the Iranian nation. Most at risk: the Khusistan section of Iran, long coveted by Iraq. If Iran did begin to break up, there could be a regional ripple effect in Pakistan, Turkey, or elsewhere; it is very much in the West's interests to see that this does not happen.
One important step that the US could take at this time would be to impress upon Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein, that America would take a very dim view of any efforts by Iraq -- now on top in its long-running war with Iran -- to try to claim Khusistan. In return the US could hold out the carrot of cooperation in helping to finance post-war reconstruction in Iraq.
Beyond that, the US should prepare to make overtures toward the new generation of Iranians, and toward potential future Iranian leaders, when the time is right. While acknowledging the extreme difficulty the US has had in its relations with Khomeini-led Iran, the US should be ready for a more constructive relationship with a post-Khomeini government.