After years of equivocation, Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani has declared his willingness to establish official contacts with the United States. This decision will have a domestic import in Iran at least as stunning as Richard Nixon's historic 1971 opening to China was for U.S. politics. The revolution begun by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini will never again be the same.
All the pieces have not fallen into place, however. Mr. Rafsanjani cautioned that direct talks with the United States would have to be approved by Iran's supreme religious leader and national security council. Iranian decision-making is now more collegial than under Khomeini, but Mr. Rafsanjani needs some protection against his domestic enemies in the event that Washington gives the back of its hand to this overture.
The initial U.S. response has been chilly, perhaps reflecting memories of past experience with the vagaries of Iranian politics. But on its face, Mr. Rafsanjani's statement gives the United States the opportunity to end a decade of mutual hostility with Iran, as well as to encourage Iran to play a constructive role in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
This is clearly in America's interests. It has proved its military dominance in the region, but it now faces the far more difficult task of building a new security framework that can provide stability and prevent future aggression. A new U.S.-Iranian relationship could prove to be a godsend in this effort.
In any event, Iran will play an important role for good or ill. As demonstrated by events of the past few months, Iran's size, population and resources make it the only viable regional counterweight to Iraq. Indeed, it was the Western policy of trying to deny this fact, through weakening Iran excessively, that created the challenge from Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Most countries in the region, notably the Arab Gulf states, now support Iran's inclusion in future security arrangements. The only ques- tion is whether its role will be constructive or destructive from America's point of view. How Washington responds to Mr. Rafsanjani can be decisive in shaping the answer.
The shift in Iran's behavior can best be seen in what it has done since Iraq invaded Kuwait. Tehran has observed the U.N.-imposed sanctions. Despite considerable domestic pressure, it remained neutral in the war, and impounded more than 100 Iraqi aircraft flown to Iran, declaring that they would not re-enter the war, a posture that U.S. intelligence could monitor.
There is some domestic and regional resistance to a pragmatic and more open attitude toward the outside world. A more realistic and enlightened Iran would be one of the most fTC economically attractive countries in the region, perhaps at the expense of the others.
In the past, the interaction of Iran's domestic politics and regional rivalries helped prevent the establishment of a dialogue with the United States. Too often, Washington has viewed Iran through the prism of its regional rivals. Too often, the United States has put more emphasis on negative rather than positive aspects of Iranian behavior. In the process, a breakthrough in relations has been forestalled. And Iranians who oppose a realistic and cooperative discourse with the United States have gained ammunition.
The United States should grasp the opportunity, implicit in Mr. Rafsanjani's statement, to explore the possibility of reconciliation with Iran. The Bush administration should reassure Iran of being included in planning the region's future, provided that Iran will play a constructive role. It should hold out the possibility of Iran's engagement in the Western economy.
If the United States ignores this overture, Mr. Rafsanjani's radical enemies will discredit him and Iran's new experiment in moderation. The moment will be lost, with potentially dangerous consequences.
Shireen T. Hunter is deputy director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.