For US and Iran, 17 Years Of No Dialogue Is Too Long

This past Nov. 4 marked the 17th anniversary of the seizure of my embassy in Tehran. It was 16 years on Jan. 20 since my hostage colleagues and I returned from Tehran. The first is an anniversary we choose not to observe; the second we will always celebrate. Freedom regained is a very special thing.

Seventeen years of continuing confrontation between two countries once allied, two peoples who once shared much, is a very long time. The analogy is not perfect, but I'm reminded of another incident in the long reach of history: It took 16 years after the Russian revolution of 1917 before the United States and the Soviet Union were prepared to begin an official relationship. The 17 years since that dark day in Tehran will someday, too, be little more than an incident in the span of time.

Seventeen years without a dialogue serves the interests of neither the US nor Iran. Surely not the US, given the range of American interests in a region within which Iran is inevitably destined to play a major, if not the leading, role. Our political involvement, our military presence, and the interests that dictate that presence amount to a considerable American strategic exposure at no small degree of risk over the long term. Finding a basis for engagement, however distasteful the nature of the regime in Tehran, would seem to serve those interests better than a posture of containment that has so far proven unproductive.

Nor surely are Iran's interests served by this state of affairs. Its regime must know that our presence in the region, in the oil-laden Gulf in particular, rests on strong US interests that are long-term in nature and that are not to be removed by revolutionary rhetoric from Tehran. And it must know, too, that Iran's hopes and plans for development will always fall short if they continue to be without full access to the explosive technological advance of the West, led, whether Iran likes it or not, by the US.

All this has been said before. The stalemate is obvious. The challenge is to find ways to begin talking - without preconditions - about how, over time, to reestablish a relationship, however limited. It won't be easy. There are formidable obstacles on both sides, not least the political and emotional baggage born of the hostage crisis. Yet there also is ample evidence that public opinion on both sides is probably more open to change than are the two governments.

The public record will show that Washington has repeatedly made clear a posture of being open to dialogue. The public record also suggests, however, that Washington has rarely accompanied that with tangible signals designed to encourage a response - its refusal last year to allow Conoco Oil to proceed with Tehran's offer of a drilling contract, for example. Perhaps classified channels would reveal otherwise, but without that we are left with the impression that US policy is one primarily of sticks, with few, if any, carrots - the whole adversely influenced on occasion by domestic political considerations. As for Tehran, there appears even less readiness to dialogue, except under conditions that seem deliberately designed to keep Washington at bay.

There are no easy answers, except perhaps to find reassurance that, in the long reach of history, Iran and the US will not be distant forever. A number of common interests, not least in Gulf stability and the free flow of oil, will virtually compel contact at some point. Moreover, all revolutions in time lose some of their zeal, especially if they lose their ties with a national past, as Iran's may well be doing.

At a minimum, in the near term, both sides need to lower their rhetoric. Constant American dismissal of Iran as a rogue state, however much its regime may have earned that title, probably propels the hard-liners in Tehran to continue saying and doing things that make reality out of rhetoric. And, if the Iranian leaders are genuinely open to dialogue with the "Great Satan," they could begin by finding ways to signal to Washington, in both words and deeds, that they are not the villains in the peace process that policymakers here feel they are. Fewer staged demonstrations outside the walls of my old embassy in Tehran might also be helpful.

Ultimately it boils down to leadership - leadership courageous enough to accept that current policies are not working and risk being counterproductive. Courageous enough to accept that the two countries, however much they may disagree, have shared interests that are in jeopardy by allowing a 17-year impasse simply to drift.

Reelected leadership in Washington needs seriously to look at its Iran policy, as part of whatever long-term assessment it makes of America's role and interests in the region. And in Tehran, while a presidential election campaign in 1997 probably precludes any change in signals for now, it should not be too much to hope that some reassessment will in time surface there as well.

* Bruce Laingen, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, was US charg d'affaires when taken hostage in Iran.

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