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Pragmatism Needed in US-Iran Relations

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
March 7, 2004
The Boston Globe


THE SWEEPING victory by Iran's conservatives in recent parliamentary elections confirms that reform in Iran will be an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary event. With President Khatami marginalized and reformers on the ropes, the Guardian Council has unfettered control over Iran's nuclear program and approach toward Iraq. The Bush administration must decide whether to continue its isolation of Iran or to engage the Tehran regime when such engagement advances interests that are critical to the United States.

There is a big difference between Iran's conservatives today and the Islamic extremists of yesteryear. Twenty-five years after the revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, Iran's ideological fervor is running out of steam. During my visit to Iran last December, I was surprised to find the Masjid Imam mosque empty during Friday prayers.

More striking was the intense apathy of Iranians. Formerly fervent pro-reform leaders seemed resigned to defeat. At a university forum in Isfahan, students expressed deep dissatisfaction with Khatami for failing to deliver promised reforms. Many Iranians vowed to boycott parliamentary elections even before the Guardian Council disqualified pro-reform candidates.

Ever since popular unrest swept Khatami into office, Iran has been paralyzed by the power struggle between conservative and reform factions. At least the recent election results will break the log jam; Tehran will be represented by one unified government that is hopefully more pragmatic and more committed to fulfilling Iran's international obligations.

Iran's most urgent need is for economic progress to satisfy its burgeoning population of young people -- 70 percent of Iranians are under age 30. About 1 million Iranians enter the workforce each year, while only 300,000 new jobs are created. The national economy will worsen as long as Iran remains isolated from the global mainstream.

Pragmatic conservatives, such as Hasan Rohani, chairman of the National Security Council, recognize the cost of Iran's isolation. Rohani has the potential to convince the supreme leader to support incremental reforms. Last December, Rohani demonstrated an ability to craft consensus across the political spectrum by engineering Iran's agreement to sign the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Of course some clerics still see the United States as the "Great Satan," but it is no longer taboo for even conservative bazaar merchants to talk about relations with the United States; Rohani may surprise the West by pursuing more rational relations with the United States.

During my visit, I was told that Iran's approach to the United States will be largely contingent upon America's actions. After President Bush's axis of evil speech and the Iraq war, many Iranians feared that Iran was next on America's hit list. Their concerns were exacerbated by the deployment of US troops to countries neighboring Iran.

Iranians were relieved last December when Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage indicated that regime change was no longer official policy of the US government. Despite his testimony, there is scant sign of a thaw in US-Iran relations. Though the convergence of US and Iranian national interests in Afghanistan and Iraq opens up the possibility for small steps to promote common purpose, discreet contacts between US and Iranian officials were suspended by the Bush administration after Al Qaeda detainees in Iran were implicated in the Riyadh bombings of May 12. No "grand deal" is in the works.

After the shocking revelations about Iran's advanced centrifuge technology, the United States must stay steely eyed in its dealings with Iran. It should work through the International Atomic Energy Agency and European surrogates to compel Iran's compliance with its treaty obligations. However, direct contact between US and Iranian officials is needed when it comes to Iraq.

The recent bombings in Kerbala are intended to radicalize Iraqi Shi'ites. Given the deep ties among the Shi'ite community, Iran's assistance would be invaluable in helping to moderate Iraqi Shi'ites. The Bush administration must not let its ideological aversion to the Tehran regime interfere with the need for a more pragmatic approach stewarding Iraq's transition to democracy.

David L. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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