Iran's decision to release the 15 British sailors and marines it captured is a victory for common sense on both sides. Now what? Can this victory begin the process of de-escalating tensions and seeking some basis for accommodation, not just between Britain and Iran, but between the United States and Iran as well?
The initiative is now with the United States to forge a coherent strategy for securing its basic interests in its relationship with Iran — with serious negotiations as the centerpiece of that strategy.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice broke the political logjam preventing negotiations by arranging for the Iraqi government to invite all parties to a conference on Iraq's future. Stage two of that process is supposed to take place later in April, with discussions at the foreign minister level, probably in Turkey.
U.S. and Iranian diplomats would help both their nations if they use these talks to go off in a corner by themselves and discuss the full range of their differences, disagreements and potential conflicts.
The first issue is Iraq. Iran has gained significantly from America's problems there. Saddam Hussein, its bitter enemy, is gone, as is Iranian Enemy No. 2, the Taliban, in Afghanistan — and both courtesy of U.S. military power. But if the Iranians are thinking clearly, they will understand that a political and military vacuum in Iraq, following a disorderly withdrawal of American forces, could not be entirely to their liking.
At a major conference in Bahrain in January, the Iranian foreign minister said that if the United States left Iraq, Iran would be willing to ease its passage, a statement that could easily be dismissed as not wanting to step on its own victory. But the minister added another point: The United States should not be in any hurry to leave. This recalls St. Augustine's remark: "Oh Lord, make me chaste — but not yet."
All this makes Iraq a good issue to head the agenda of U.S.-Iranian bilateral negotiations. The next point should be Afghanistan. In 2001 Iran was instrumental in the U.S. and coalition defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaida, Iran's own mortal enemies, and America acknowledged as much.
Now, Iran has even approached the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to ask for help in stabilizing its eastern frontier against the drug dealers pouring in from Afghanistan and killing Iranian police. NATO has so far refused, at America's request.
The third point on any U.S.-Iranian negotiating agenda needs to be Iran's nuclear program. Nothing short of war will make Iran abandon even its civilian program, which Iranians see as their most valuable entry card to the ranks of technologically advanced nations. The outside world's need is that Iran not get atomic weapons, and this can be achieved by negotiated limits on uranium enrichment and total and rigorous inspection of Iranian nuclear facilities.
And what is the coin of exchange for Iran's becoming squeaky clean on nuclear arms? Progressive lifting of sanctions and a U.S. offer of security guarantees, which Washington has refused to put on the table, either directly or through European negotiators.
America and others also demand that Iran halt its support for terrorism and Hezbollah. That has to be high on the agenda. But the United States is more likely to get Iran to back off from that behavior and the outrageous statements of its president — not himself the top leader of the nation — if there is a mutual deal on the security needs of Iran, its neighbors and the West.
That leaves the most difficult point and key to the whole package: the U.S. desire, as with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, to contain, reduce, and if possible eliminate Iranian pursuit of power and influence in the Persian Gulf region. That is at the heart of the U.S. desire for "regime change," which supposedly would produce a more "cooperative" Iran. Given Iranian history, the character of its people and its place in the Gulf, that is an illusion, although some other leadership might be more accommodating on some issues.
But achieving Iranian regime change through war (the only way to do it, in face of hostile Western rhetoric that simply reinforces the domestic political strength of the Iranian president) would produce more turmoil and more calamity for the region, the West and the world.
There are a handful of irreducible facts in the Middle East. One is that the United States will not be forced out of the region and that it will be the pre-eminent power for the indefinite future, however Iraq plays out. The other is that Iran will also be a key power in the region, short of a war that would be a common disaster. America and Iran should both recognize these facts and seize on resolution of the immediate hostage crisis to start pointing in the right direction.
© 2007 United Press International
Robert E. Hunter is a senior adviser at the Rand Corp., a non-profit research organization. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on April 19, 2007.