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Washington, Tehran Should Move Beyond Talking About Talks

Contacts need to start on a lower level, such as when U.S. and Iranian ambassador to Iraq met in Baghdad in 2007.
Contacts need to start on a lower level, such as when U.S. and Iranian ambassador to Iraq met in Baghdad in 2007.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week that she did not expect Iran to respond favorably to a U.S. offer of direct talks. But has there been any such offer in the first place?

U.S. President Barack Obama has frequently said he is ready for direct talks with Tehran. High-ranking Iranian officials have also expressed a readiness for talks. But, as far as is known publicly, these overtures have not produced any specific diplomatic activities. Of course, this doesn't mean that nothing has been done, since the early steps in repairing relations that have been left to deteriorate for 30 years would most likely occur behind the scenes.

It is true that veteran diplomat Dennis Ross has been appointed the special adviser to the secretary of state on Persian Gulf affairs, and U.S. media have reported that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns will be the administration's point man on Iran. But all evidence is that the new U.S. administration has not yet reached out directly to Tehran. Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani said as much when asked by a German newspaper: "We have heard about the U.S. intention to talk to us just from the media."

It seems the Obama administration is still working on its road map for dealing with Iran, leaving media and Tehran to guess what changes will be made to the policies of the last eight years. Writing in "The Washington Post," David Ignatius quoted White House officials as saying the primary person Obama listens to on Iran is former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, a co-chairman of the 2006 Iraq Study Group that urged engagement with the Iranian regime.

"You don't start by Obama calling [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad or the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]," Hamilton told Ignatius. "Contacts have to begin at a lower level."

Positive Signals

But perhaps even before that happens, Hamilton suggested, the atmosphere between the two countries needs to be improved. To begin, Washington must "state our respect for the Iranian nation [and] renounce regime change as an instrument of U.S. policy," Hamilton was quoted as saying.

Achieving this will take more than just a statement or two. Tehran is looking to see if Iran is treated -- both in statements and in policies -- the same way Washington treats Kabul or Islamabad or New Delhi. That is, although there is room in the relationship for criticism or challenges, it must be based on acknowledgment and respect without any hint that regime change, military action, or subversive activities are on the agenda at present or in the future.

But Washington is also watching for signals. Surely substantive progress in bilateral relations can only be made if Iranian leaders back down from their statements that Israel should be wiped off the map, if they assure the international community that they are not supplying arms to insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries. As long as these issues hang in the air, the Obama administration's ability to move ahead on relations will be severely restricted.

Iran and Washington must confront a 30-year legacy of distrust and animosity, and it won't be easy for either side to repair the damage that has been done. It will take time and patience. Direct, formal talks will come eventually, but they will be more likely to succeed in the context of many smaller, but significant gestures and actions on both sides.

There is a Persian saying that goes, "Prove first that you are my brother before you make any claims on my father's inheritance." Or, to use Obama's metaphor, merely saying that one's fist is unclenched -- and will stay unclenched -- is not enough. Clinton might be right that Iran would not respond favorably to an offer of direct talks. But that just means there is work to be done -- now.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of programming with RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL