The Bush administration and Iran seem to be stepping back from the brink of their confrontation over accusations that Iran is pursuing a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. On Sunday, Iranian officials in Vienna said they would consider suspending their controversial uranium-enrichment program for two months if that would improve the climate for the talks. Washington's chief negotiator there said he welcomed the move.
This is great news. The last thing the Middle East or central Asia needs is an outbreak of fighting between the US and Iran. In Afghanistan and Iraq, US and allied troops face a worrying escalation of hostilities. In both countries, these troops are deployed in vulnerable positions, at the end of equally vulnerable supply lines. Iran lies between those two countries – and abuts the US naval presence in the Persian Gulf.
So it is not nearly enough to take just one small step back from the brink. Washington and Tehran need urgently to start addressing the broader issues of power and security in the region. They also need to make sure that the military forces they both have deployed and primed for action there do not get mistakenly jerked into action. Does each side have a hot-line arrangement to dispel misunderstandings, I wonder? If not, they should.
How can the weightier challenge of stabilizing the long-stormy US-Iran relationship be tackled? This is a real conundrum. The two governments have not had diplomatic relations since 1980, the year after Iranian radicals seized the US Embassy and held American hostages for 444 days. Since then – including quite recently – both leaderships have hurled some very strong invective against the other.
Last week, though, the Bush administration seemed to be cautiously testing whether a new relationship with Iran might be possible. For the first time since 1979, Washington allowed a visiting Iranian dignitary to travel across the country and talk to a range of Americans. This was Mohammad Khatami, who was president of Iran from 1997 until last summer. President Bush told The Wall Street Journal, "I was interested to hear what he had to say.... My hope is that diplomacy will work in convincing the Iranians to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions. And in order for diplomacy to work, it's important to hear voices other than [current President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's."
Some Americans greeted Mr. Khatami with howls of protest. I was at two of the gatherings he addressed and I found him to be erudite, dignified, and eager to help improve relations between Washington and Tehran. While at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies here in Charlottesville, he was asked how he thought this could be done. He recalled that he and Bill Clinton had taken some small steps to ease tensions. "But the atmosphere changed after Clinton left office, and there have [since] been problems on both sides."
He urged that "both sides" should moderate their rhetoric. And he insisted that the two countries share important interests, saying, "we can move towards less enmity and more peace."
Speaking earlier at the University of Virginia, he indicated that one common interest might be the implementation of an orderly endgame for the US effort in Iraq. "The occupation must end so there can be peace," he said. "But also, you can't leave the present Iraqi government at the mercy of the terrorists. If you ask me should the Americans leave tomorrow, I'd say 'No, don't do it.' But the solution of America's problem in Iraq ... needs the cooperation of the neighbors in the region and of the UN." He didn't need to spell out that the weightiest of these neighbors is Iran.
Khatami's suggestion that the US should engage Iraq's neighbors and the UN as it works out an endgame there seems very sensible to me. But would Khatami be the best "channel" for such an approach? Perhaps, or perhaps not. He has clear political differences with Mr. Ahmadinejad – but a much more nuanced relationship with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has made increasingly clear in recent months that he is the real seat of power in the country.
It was not clear to me whether Khatami was proposing himself for any key diplomatic role. What did seem clear was his commitment, in a general but philosophically deep way, to the ideals of peaceful coexistence that motivated his US trip. If this visit – and Mr. Bush's wisdom in letting it proceed – helps the world avoid a US-Iranian explosion and brings the two countries closer to improved relations, then that is already cause for huge relief.
• Helena Cobban's book, "Amnesty after Atrocity? Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes," will be published soon.