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Missed Connections
Photo by Margaretta Soehendro

Missed Connections

Barbara Slavin discusses opportunities for reconciliation between Iran and the United States.

Margaretta Soehendro Email MargarettaSoehendro

"Because of U.S. policies, Iran is much more powerful in the region today than it was before. You can try to shut out the reality. You can try to pretend this isn't the case. Or you can accept the reality and you can try to do something about it," said Barbara Slavin at a lecture hosted by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies on Feb. 14, 2008.

Slavin, a Jennings Randolph fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and senior diplomatic reporter, now on leave, for USA TODAY, discussed missed opportunities for reconciliation between the United States and Iran. That is a major theme in her new book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. She said she wrote the book after returning from a trip to Iran in February 2006 and hearing from the Bush administration the same sort of rhetoric it used prior to the invasion of Iraq.

"Everybody knows the negative" about Iran, she said. "But what people don't know is that there were efforts that were made... that as our recent national intelligence estimates said, Iran is a country that operates according to a cost-benefit analysis. And the leaders there—you may not like them, you may not like their views, but they can be quite coldly logical when it suits their purposes, and they can change when they see there is a reason to change. So I think it's important to stress that," said Slavin.

Easing Tensions

In U.S. President George H.W. Bush's 1989 inaugural address, he said, "Good will begets good will" in an overture to get Iran to help negotiate the release of the last American hostages in Lebanon. Slavin said Iranian emissaries met with then National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and informed him that Iran was interested in improving U.S.-Iran relations as well. Although a meeting was arranged in Switzerland in 1990, the Iranians "got cold feet" and it didn't take place.

When U.S. President Bill Clinton came into office, he initially took a tough approach with Iran as part of his "dual containment" policy against that country and Iraq and imposed sanctions, Slavin said. But when Mohammad Khatami was unexpectedly elected president of Iran in 1997 and said in a CNN interview that he wanted to "break down the bulky wall of mistrust between the two countries," Clinton welcomed the possible rapprochement.

Slavin said Clinton sent a message to the Iranians through the Saudis to arrange a meeting between high-level officials from the two countries. But Clinton received no reply from Khatami. Clinton tried again by slightly easing sanctions against Iran, and Secretary of State Madeline Albright publicly apologized for the United States' role in Iran's 1953 coup and for siding with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War.

The problem, according to Slavin, was that Albright also spoke disapprovingly of the "unelected hands," the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and other Muslim clerics in the government, that run Iran. Under the Iranian system, the president is subordinate to the supreme leader, who is technically chosen by a body elected by the people, so Khatami could not effect real change without Khamenei's approval.

Nonetheless, Slavin said, at the end of the Clinton administration U.S.-Iranian relations were better than they had been in 25 years.

9/11 Opportunity

By the time Iran finally began making overtures, Slavin said, President George W. Bush had taken office and he was not interested in any opportunities to talk or in talks themselves with Iran.

Slavin said 9/11 was "where the real tragedy takes place" regarding a potential U.S.-Iranian reconciliation. "The entire Iranian government" saw an opportunity to change relations given that the two countries for the first time shared common enemies: the Taliban, who massacred Afghan Shia and killed 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1988, and Al-Qaida, who regard Shia as non-Muslims.

When Khatami said he wanted pay his respects at Ground Zero and provide experts on the Taliban and Al-Qaida to help the United States, he was ignored. Slavin said a State Department official told her "the Bush administration is not interested in this kind of dialogue with Iran."

But the United States and Iran did end up meeting to discuss Afghanistan, and later Al-Qaida and Iraq, eventually in secret, one-on-one, high-level meetings in Paris and Geneva. The meetings took place from fall of 2001 until winter of 2003, even after Bush called Iran a member of the "axis of evil" in a famous 2002 address, and were known and supported by then Secretary of State Colin Powell. The talks began to collapse in May 2003 when they were discovered.

The Iranian government then sent a proposal to the United States and offered to help with Iraq, but the United States gave no reply. Bush had given his "Mission Accomplished" speech on May 2, 2003, and Slavin said the administration thought, "We don't need Iran."

Iran reached out again. In an interview with Slavin, Iranian National Security Advisor Ali Larijani said he admired U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and Khamenei publicly stated Iran was ready to talk to the United States about Iraq. Slavin said such talk would once have been considered treasonous. But the United States ignored both overtures.

"President Bush keeps saying he wants more contact with the great Iranian people," said Slavin. "You can't have that if you don't have some sort of relationship with the Iranian government."

A Need for Engagement

For Iran's part, in January 2008 Khamanei said while it wasn't to Iran's benefit to improve relations with the United States at this time, "we never said this relationship should be cut forever. The day when having relations with America is useful to Iran, I will be the first to approve."

To encourage this, Slavin suggested the United States engage Iran.

"Sanctions and threats and 'axis of evil' haven't worked. They've simply given the regime more excuses to crack down on people," she said.

She advocated diplomatic relations to increase contact between Iranians and Americans and while not necessarily withdrawing all sanctions and pressures, the removal of the United States as an external enemy.

"They say, 'Look, the United States is threatening World War III. When we exercise our legitimate right to have a civilian nuclear program, they threaten us with World War III. And they put us on the axis of evil, and they refuse to take the military option off the table.' We write the script for them. If you change the language, it's really going to disarm them," said Slavin.

When asked whether the Iranian regime wants to keep the United States as an external enemy to maintain its legitimacy, Slavin said that despite that possibility, Iran's technological necessities pushed it toward, not away, from the United States. Iran's politicians—whether Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—want to broker the deal "that people can respect."

"Whoever in the Iranian system is the one to restore relations with the United States in a deal that looks equitable—it looks like the United States is showing respect to Iran—will be a hero," said Slavin.

She sees the need for the United States to improve relations with Iran, too.

"I find it difficult to believe that the United States is going to be able to bring any sort of stability to the area without a better relationship with Iran," she said.

Slavin does not dismiss the human rights issue that makes engaging Iran a complicated and controversial issue.

"I'm not saying the Iranian regime is going to change overnight and that the long-suffering Iranian people are going to have their liberty. But I'm saying that I can see a process beginning which might start to change the dynamics both inside and outside of Iran and that everything else that we have tried has failed," she said.

The missed opportunities may not have led to reconciliation, Slavin said, but with the resurgence of the Taliban, the state of Iraq, and Iran's continued uranium enrichment program, she wonders—what if?

"The Iranian system is complicated. Negotiations could have been impossible... There's no guarantee. There's never a guarantee. But I think there was a chance and we blew it."

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