US could soften Iranian hostility to Israel

Unofficial US ties with Iran - letting Americans bargain for carpetsand pistachios - would go a long way in peacemaking

Twenty years ago this month revolutionary Iran was kind to Israel - for the first and the last time.

The revolution had just toppled the Shah and Israel's covert embassy staff was trapped. Thanks in part to the American embassy, they were allowed to slip out of Tehran airport. Iran was a wild place; Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan's struggling government plainly did not want extra problems.

Today hostility between the two countries is intense. In Iran, Israel's strongest foes are religious hard-liners; in Israel the toughest rhetoric surprisingly comes from the moderate Labor party, not the hard-line Likud.

Jerusalem's charge list against Iran is the same as Washington's: Iran opposes the peace process, seeks nukes, and aids terrorism. Iranians confess to the first; only secret intelligence convicts them of the other two. I don't dispute those two charges, noting only the regularity in the past half century of intelligence agency failures to understand Iran.

Pretty clearly, neither of the two charges would be decisive with Washington if Iran were not so unremittingly hostile to Israel. Compare North Korea, also accused of terrorism and nuclear ambitions. North Korea is indifferent to Israel, but receives American aid.

Egyptians, Jordanians, and Palestinians all have suffered greatly at Israel's hands; all have made peace. Why is Iran, remote from the conflict, so firmly rejectionist when that fashion faded long ago in the Arab world?

There are two explanations. The first is the quest for national independence, a powerful force behind the 1979 revolution. Getting foreigners off Iran's back has roots in the cleric-led boycott of a British tobacco monopoly 100 years ago. During the first half of this century nationalists fought Russian and British influence and in the last 50 years fading Brits, assertive Americans, and their sidekicks the Israelis.

To please his new friends and protect himself in a radical neighborhood, the Shah sold oil to Israel and profited from its intelligence, military, and economic cooperation. He had one problem: his subjects despised Israel. The revolution blew the lid off the Shah's heavy control and repressed feelings toward Israel found expression. For clerics, the creation of Israel at Palestinian expense represents injustice. Moslems, they proclaim, must seek justice - always with rhetoric, sometimes through action. Although President Mohamad Khatami condemns terrorism, some Iranians do not draw the same line.

The second basis for Iran's anger against Israel is Shia Muslim solidarity.

Few Iranians question support for the Hizbollah in Lebanon. Like Israel's concern for Jews everywhere, the world's only Shia state considers it a duty to defend its brethren in distress. Lebanese Shia have borne the brunt of Israel's attacks and occupation. Iran's defense of them is no different from its defense of Afghanistan's Shia against the Taliban or concern for Iraq's abused Shiite majority.

Time will eventually end the Iran-Israel conflict. Israel already thinks of pulling out of . Lebanon. A peace that Palestinians accept will undercut Iran's objections. A retired senior official of the State Department told a conference recently, "The day Israel's policy toward Iran changes, the next day American policy will change."

Does our policy toward Iran have to remain frozen until peace breaks out? Or can we begin now to encourage a softening of Iran's hostility toward Israel?

We ought to help Iran refocus its national priorities away from a defensive struggle for independence toward a more confident drive for freedom and economic development at home.

Those also were revolutionary principles.

Rather than seek a "roadmap" to resume official relations, we should work for stronger unofficial relations - business and cultural - by progressively easing sanctions. Strengthen Mr. Khatami's middle-class support. Let Americans bargain for carpets and pistachios. Welcome Iranian students to our universities.

Don't expect reciprocal gestures for every favor. Iran now has factional politics, just as we do. Government decisions are debated, sometimes defeated. Don't make it more difficult for reformers trying to change course.

In time, Iran will end its isolation. Self-confidence will make bluster unnecessary. Mutual trust and respect for the US will grow. We only need a little of that 1979 Tehran airport pragmatism on all sides.

*Henry Precht, a retired US foreign service officer, was in charge of the State Department's Iran desk during the revolution and hostage crisis.

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