US Foreign Policy
Commentary

A New Beginning in US-Iran Relations?

in Program

By Ellen Laipson – This weekend, the US Secretary of State may
meet her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, at a meeting on Iraq
in the Egyptian resort Sharm el-Sheikh. Even a brief encounter will
raise expectations about a shift in US-Iran tensions. The most
optimistic outcome is the first step in a long and painful walk towards a
more normal relationship, but powerful forces in both countries will
put obstacles in the path.

 

Secretary of State Rice’s latest words on
Iran seem to suggest a change in policy tactics, if not goals. Rice has
encouraged the Iranian foreign minister to attend the Iraq meeting this
coming weekend in an Egyptian resort, although no one speaks ofany
planned substantive encounter. In November 2004, also at a dinner
following a meeting on Iraq at Sharm el-Sheikh, then Secretary of State
Powell sat between Iraqi FM Zebari and then-Iranian FM Kharrazi. They
went to great length to avoid talking about anything substantive,
including on Iraq.

 

For the US, a more realistic tone has
emerged in Iran pronouncements. The Secretary of Defense insists that we
seek a diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem, and that there is no
active planning for military action, despite Iran’s non-compliance on
the nuclear issue and its various activities in Iraq. Rice and her
Undersecretary for Political Affairs, Nick Burns, talk about engaging
with Iranian civil society, although that is surely a mixed message to
the Iranians, who fear that funds for these cultural exchanges are
really aimed at regime change.

 

For the Iranians, it is not clear whether
Mottaki’s apparent willingness to attend the meeting in Sharm is based
on a new desire to appear reasonable, in light of the UK naval incident,
or whether it is to show Iran’s independence in setting its own Iraq
policy. National Security Advisor Larijani made a quick trip to Baghdad
in advance of the weekend meeting, and there are many bilateral
Iraq-Iran issues that the US is not privy to, or in a position to
influence.

 

Most likely, the meeting this weekend will indeed focus on Iraq. It
will hopefully set a more energetic course in implementing the Compact
for Iraq, which outlines the international community’s plans to provide
aid, debt relief, and reconstruction assistance to Iraq. Iran and the US
can do business in Iraq, to the benefit of all. Iran, for example, has
reportedly tipped off American forces in Iraq to capture Abdul Hadi
al-Iraqi, a senior Iraqi al-Qaeda militant who was revealed last week to
have been arrested on the border between Iran and Iraq late last year.
But the US will continue to keep pressure on Iran to stop providing
technical support to various Iraqi insurgents.

 

A fleeting exchange of pleasantries between the US and Iranian
representatives will surely not constitute a diplomatic breakthrough,
but could help change the mood in the region, and create more favorable
conditions for the hard work ahead on Iran’s nuclear program in
particular. There are some signs that Iran is ready to work with the EU
and others again, and that the US would join those talks, should Iran
suspend its enrichment activities. But achieving something significant
in US-Iran relations will likely occur beyond the timeframe of the Bush
Administration.

 


Ellen
Laipson is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia project, which focuses on a
range of security issues in the Gulf region. Laipson is a frequent
speaker on Middle East issues and on US foreign policy and global
trends.

 

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