It's time to soften the Bush administration's hard position against direct talks with Iran. A good time for both Washington and Tehran to begin overtures toward such talks would be following the UN Security Council's April 28 deadline for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, which Iran rejects.
During her brief visit in Athens this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated that while "all options are still on the table" with Iran, Washington prefers that Iran and European Union states return to earlier multilateral nuclear talks to cajole Iran into suspending its uranium enrichment plans. Those talks have so far been singularly unsuccessful.
In remarks to the London Financial Times, US State Department counselor Philip Zelikov linked rejection of direct US-Iran talks to the nature of Iran's "dictatorial ... and revolutionary" regime. This is a flawed argument. If, since World War II, the United States had avoided negotiating with such regimes, including the former Soviet Union and China, what would America's world status be now?
It's time for ideologues in both the Bush administration and Iran's clerical regime to reconsider the historical grievances complicating the Iranian nuclear issue, and then to work to defuse them in direct talks.
Otherwise, the world could face the military confrontation forecast recently by New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh and other serious commentators. As it happened with Iraq in 2003, such an outcome could follow action in the UN Security Council, where the sanction demands by the US is demanding sanctions backed by possible force, but is blocked by Russia and China.
Cooler and better-informed heads in both Washington and Tehran, with concerted help from like-minded leaders around the world, could help move both sides back from the brink of a possible military confrontation and retaliation.
Jahangir Amouzegar is a distinguished Iranian economist and former member of the International Monetary Fund's executive board. He has closely followed and sometimes influenced Iran's course since the epoch of the former US Middle East ally, Shah Muhammed Reza Pahlavi.
In the authoritative newsletter Middle East Economic Digest (MEED) for April 10, Mr. Amouzegar points to the loud US and Israeli alarm signals about Iran's overt (and legal) program of uranium enrichment for power generation and about its presumed covert weapons research. He argues that they mask a wish to overthrow and change Tehran's clerical-fascist regime to one amenable to US and Israeli strategic wishes.
Since the Shah's 1979 fall and the ensuing US hostage crisis, Washington and Tehran have squared off and mostly treated each other as bitter foes. The mullahs' regime feels that the US has never accepted, and will never accept, their theocratic rule.
Washington, closely backed (and sometimes urged, it appears) by Jerusalem - especially since the recent barrage of fanatically anti-Israel rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - professes to view Iran as a major threat and agrees with the Israeli view that it is an "existential threat" to the Jewish state.
Old historical grievances of each side exacerbate both the West's mistrust of Iran's nuclear intentions and the Iranian clerics' anti-US diatribes. These grievances go far back beyond the present nuclear issues. Iran bitterly recalls the freezing of Iranian bank assets in the US; nondelivery of embargoed US arms it had paid for; the Burton-Helms trade and economic sanctions the US Congress has imposed since 1984; as well as US destruction of Iran's offshore oil platforms in the Persian Gulf during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Strongly contributing to Iran's long sulk was general US support for Saddam Hussein's war on Iran and constant US readiness - justified or not - to identify acts of terrorism in Lebanon, Israel, Argentina, and elsewhere as commanded by Tehran.
Since 1979, Washington's list of bilateral grievances against Tehran is equally long: the Tehran hostage crisis of 1979-81; Iran's real support for Hizbullah; constant backing for Hamas and Islamic Jihad that opposes Israel; and Iranian involvement in the taking of US hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s.
President George W. Bush's inclusion of Iran with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea in his "axis of evil," rephrased in his National Security Strategy declaration of March 16, helped impel Congress to appropriate more than $75 million to finance anti-mullah propaganda and apparent subversion in Iran.
What Washington's neoconservatives really wish is for Mr. Ahmadinejad and Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei to accommodate US goals in neighboring Iraq, Afghanistan, and in Israel-Palestine. A backing off from hostile rhetoric by both sides and the opening of direct talks on all the issues could be a first step toward defusing tension.
Expert observers of Iran like Amouzegar believe that moderate elements in the US and Iran - and they exist in abundance in both - can work toward a mutual security pact. If US security guarantees replaced sanctions or sword-rattling, Iran might well soften its attitude toward nuclear development, as well as its officially belligerent stance toward Israel (after all, at least 25,000 Iranian Jews remain in an ancient community in Iran); or its aggressive support for large segments of Iraq's Shiite majority.
Wouldn't such a course be vastly preferable to brandishing B-1 bombers, Tomahawk missiles, or even bunker-busting tactical nukes?
Surely, it's worth a try.
• John K. Cooley is a former Monitor Middle East correspondent. His latest book is "An Alliance Against Babylon, the US, Israel and Iraq."