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United States: Analysis From Washington--An Opening On Iran?

Washington, 13 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Recent comments by senior American and Iranian officials suggest that these two long-estranged countries may be edging toward a dialogue with each other.

And such a renewal of talks -- and ultimately of diplomatic and economic ties -- would have profound consequences for both Iran's neighbors and the broader geopolitical scene.

On the one hand, such a resumption of ties would change the balance of power in the Middle East against Iraq. And on the other, it would allow Central Asian and Transcaucasian countries to export their oil and gas without having to send these goods through Russian pipelines.

In October, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau said in Dubai that Washington now wanted to conduct talks with the Iranian government. American policy makers, he said, had concluded that the current lack of dialogue was unsatisfactory.

And on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati replied that if Washington wanted to talk, any overtures to Iran "will not remain unanswered." His comments came on the heels of remarks by Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani last week that Iran would place no obstacles on the path toward a renewal of contacts.

But if there are an increasing number of people in both capitals who are interested in such a resumption of talks, there remain many in each and elsewhere who oppose any negotiations and who in fact benefit from the current stalemate.

In the United States, any suggestion that there should be a warming in the currently frozen relationship with Iran immediately draws fire from those who remember the Iranian occupation of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979-81 and from those who believe that isolating Iran is the best way to wean it away from its past support of terrorists.

And in Iran, there are many, including supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and parliament speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, who continue to view the United States as the "great satan" and who have regularly exploited anti-American feelings to generate political support for themselves.

In addition, there are at least two outside players who are also very much involved in this debate. Many West Europeans and the Japanese favor an American opening to Iran both because they reject American arguments that isolating Iran is an effective strategy and because they want to benefit from importing Iranian oil and gas.

But the most important outside actor may be Russia. Since the 1978 Iranian revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power, Moscow has exploited the American isolation of Iran to do three things.

First, its own ties with Tehran have helped Moscow to reenter the Middle East as a major power broker.

Second, many in Russia -- especially among the nationalists -- have viewed ties with Iran as a way to declare Moscow's independence from American influence.

And third, and perhaps most important, Moscow has taken advantage of the American policy toward Iran to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Because Washington will not permit American firms to deal with Iranian ones or to make investments in that country, the newly independent states of the former Soviet south have been unable to use the geographically most advantageous route to export their goods.

Instead, they have been forced to seek export routes across Russia, something that has given Moscow enormous economic and political leverage in their capitals. Indeed, were Iran available as a route out, none of the ongoing discussions about the Caspian Sea or pipeline routes across the Caucasus would be taking place.

In that case, all these countries would be looking south. While that might ultimately make these countries more Islamic, it would also guarantee them both greater wealth from exports and greater independence from Moscow.

For that reason if for no other, the Russians can be expected to add their voice to those in the West who remain deeply suspicious of any ties with the Iranian leadership.

But the public comments of both Pelletreau and Velayati and the fact that American foreign policy is being reexamined as U.S. President Bill Clinton prepares for his second term suggest that there may be movement where there has long been none.