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America and Iran Are Allies

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
November 25, 2002
International Herald Tribune


NEW YORK With or without war, Iran is committed to disarming Iraq. The Guardian Council stipulates that "there can be no worse regime for us than Saddam’s." The United States and Iran have common cause in disarming and, if necessary, removing him. They also share some common interests in managing Iraq after a regime change. Both are adamant about preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Both are committed to contain vigilantism and revenge-taking that might destabilize the country. And both want to ensure that Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups, disenfranchised for decades under Ba’ath party rule, secure their political and cultural rights in a post-Saddam Iraq. Although Iran has declared "active neutrality," its extensive contacts with the Supreme Council for Islamic Resistance in Iraq could yield valuable intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations would certainly welcome such information. Should the United Nations find Iraq in material breach of the recent Security Council resolution authorizing intrusive weapons inspections, Iran would be one of many countries to endorse military action. Moreover, it could assist any U.S.-led international security force by providing access to its airspace and allowing search and rescue missions for American pilots downed on Iranian territory. If Iraq uses chemical agents against U.S. ground forces, Americans may well end up in Iranian hospitals, which are well equipped and staffed by medical personnel experienced in treating victims of chemical weapons from the war that Iraq waged against Iran. As a frontline state in any new conflict, Iran will be inundated by Iraqi refugees. The displaced population will be even greater if Saddam Hussein uses weapons of mass destruction against Shiites or Kurds. UN agencies can provide some relief, but Tehran will bear the biggest burden. In this event, the United States should provide emergency humanitarian assistance to address the needs of refugees.

America should also extend its security umbrella by eliminating Scud missiles that could attack any of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran. The United States and Iran cooperated in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and in forming a new administration in Kabul. But cooperation was suspended after President George W. Bush included Iran in his axis of evil. This time the convergence of U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq may foster continuity in their collaboration. Any such rapprochement will meet strong opposition in some circles of the Bush administration. No matter how helpful Iran may be, the United States will be realistic. It will reach out to Tehran only if America’s national interest is advanced by doing so. Some circles in Tehran are equally wary of contact with the United States. But small gestures have a big impact within Iran. For example, the United States could stop obstructing Iran’s application to join the World Trade Organization. By requiring standards of openness and transparency, Tehran’s candidacy will promote moderation in Iran.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control restricts transactions with Iran. America could loosen procedures for exporting food and medicine to Iran, and relax prohibitions on U.S. nongovernmental organizations providing assistance to refugees in Iran. The 1997 Visa Reform and Security Act mandates a lengthy security review for Iranians wanting to enter the United States. Increased medical and humanitarian exceptions could be provided, and applications could be evaluated more expeditiously. As Iran progresses down the path of reform, the United States may choose to broaden its dialogue with Tehran. Unconditional talks should include making clear why Hezbollah is so heinous to Americans. Other concerns, such as Iran’s meddling in the Middle East peace process and its extensive nuclear program, must be discussed. In turn, Iranian officials could raise their concerns about sanctions, frozen assets and Iran’s inclusion on the list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

Iranian hard-liners think that after Iraq, the United States has its sights set on Iran. But America need not interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs. The Iranian state has much more to do at home. to fulfill its promise of prosperity and greater political and social freedoms. Reform is the inevitable next stage in Iran’s evolution.

The writer, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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