Somewhere, Some Day, The US and Iran Must Talk

After 16 years of antagonism, they should start slowly and quietly

SIXTEEN years after its revolution began, and nearly 15 years since the American hostage crisis ended, Iran is again front-page news. Its regime, according to Clinton administration assessments, has secretly embarked on a drive to develop nuclear-weapons capability.

Given Tehran's previous record of support for terrorist groups, its backing of Hamas and others opposing the Middle East peace process, and reports of a conventional-arms buildup, the administration's concern is understandable. But Washington's policy objectives seems less so, given the clear difficulty in implementing them and the total absence of dialogue. Somewhere, somehow, sometime, the United States needs to talk with Iran.

Assuming the nuclear intelligence assessment is accurate, it should come as no surprise. If there is one thing the cleric-dominated Iranian regime and the former regime of the shah, which it ousted, share, it is the conviction that Iran must be, and must be seen to be, the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf. Its size, location, oil and gas resources, and store of human talent give Iran's claim considerable credibility. Moreover, nuclear programs in Pakistan and India, the ambitions (albeit, currently thwarted) of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and Israel's nuclear capability not surprisingly give Tehran, or at least some in its regime, reason to want to develop the nuclear option also.

To thwart that ambition, the US policy has been one of containment -- sometimes expressed also as pressure on Tehran to change its ways and play a more responsible role on the world stage. More recently, the US recognized that calls on others to join in containment made little sense if the US itself continued to allow exports to Iran and offshore oil purchases. The US has now evolved a total trade embargo, canceled the Conoco oil venture, and undergone a high-stakes effort to get Moscow to halt its planned sale of nuclear reactors.

Paradoxical attitudes

These moves at least make US policy credible. But it can hardly be effective without Moscow's cooperation, now subject to the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission, to which the issue has been handed. And the US policy requires support from China, Japan, and European allies as well -- none of whom appear receptive to Washington's arguments.

Meanwhile, President Hashemi Rafsanjani insists that Iran is in full compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has no intention of developing nuclear weapons. He continues his accusations of malfeasance by the Great Satan, the latest being that Washington has turned aside Iran's ''signal'' of an interest in better relations. At the same time, the paradox deepens of a regime publicly as hostile as ever toward Washington even while revolutionary zeal has eroded and popular sentiment appears increasingly open to the idea of relations with the US.

One is reminded, looking at all this in historical terms, of our experience with another revolution -- that in Moscow in 1917. It would not be until 16 years later, in 1933, that we and the Soviets established diplomatic relations. It is now a similar span of time, 16 years, since Iran and the US had a diplomatic relationship.

But with that, the analogy falls short. Today, there appears no prospect for a diplomatic breakthrough. Tough language from both sides feeds on itself. With presidential elections looming in the US and Iran, prospects are probably even more distant. Rarely do we hear much of an earlier element of US policy toward revolutionary Iran -- that the US would talk if the counterpart were an authoritative Iranian source and if talks had no preconditions.

Prospects of an impasse

What this picture suggests is a continued impasse, with little promise that US policy will have much bearing on events or decisions in a country of no small consequence for our regional interests.

That is regrettable and risks being dangerously counterproductive. Without departing from their public positions, the US and Iran should be able to begin contacts, however tentative and behind the scenes. The United Nations offers one obvious place. Nonofficial contacts are another.

Unless we harbor hopes for ''moderates'' of some sort to replace the regime in Tehran, for which there is no credible evidence, beginning a dialogue is the only way the US and Iran can deal with the issues that divide them.

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