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John Tirman

Bold action needed on Iran

By John Tirman
April 19, 2009
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THE REACTION in Tehran to President Obama's remarkable video message last month and his speech in Turkey has been cautious, even abrupt, but it conveys something important. It tells us that we need to do more than speak pleasing words to transform 30 years of a bad relationship.

The president's message on Noruz, the Persian new year, was welcome. Its respectful tone, implicit recognition of the Islamic Republic, invitation to dialogue, and promise to pursue a better relationship without threats are all fresh attitudes for a US leader. Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament, both noted the change of language while insisting that words were not enough. They want action.

That is precisely the stance one would expect from Iran, which feels set upon by America in many ways. While we may see things differently, their perspective is uniform and plausible. The United States overthrew the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mosadegh, in 1953 (something even the Islamists find deeply embittering) and supported the repressive Pahlavi regime; tried to isolate and strangle the Islamic Republic with sanctions and embargoes steadily for three decades; supported Saddam Hussein's war against Iran in the 1980s; and has pursued regime change strategies, including covert action inside Iran.

This litany bears repeating because it is the heart of the Iranians' complaint. And it speaks volumes as to why words - even Obama's constructive ones - are not enough. Nor are the small steps of diplomatic gradualism now widely proposed - a small meeting here, a handshake there. Along with the small gestures and "juicier carrots" are bigger sticks at the ready - the rewards-and-coercion tandem that has failed time and again, and which Iran thoroughly rejects.

Instead, Obama should take several steps to demonstrate his seriousness about a new relationship. That would include three changes above all others.

First is to lift the unilateral economic sanctions. (Those related to Iran's nuclear development could stay in place until that matter is resolved.) The sanctions and frozen assets are politically foolhardy and do not hurt the regime.

Second, convey security guarantees to end all threats of regime change or military attacks. We have no legal leg to support such threats, and changing this policy could transform Iran's own security perceptions. Obama has taken steps on that, but he needs to be more explicit.

Third, normalize relations. There have been numerous missed opportunities over the years in part because we could not speak to each other directly, and normal diplomatic ties would help with all outstanding issues. Normalization should be an instrument of diplomacy, not a reward.

None of these actions imposes risks on the United States. If, as is likely, they pave the way to a better relationship with Iran, the security of our friends in the region would be enhanced. Help with Iraq and Afghanistan, now among the top US priorities, would also be in the offing. With a better relationship devoid of threats, Iran is far more likely to cooperate on its nuclear development program. In fact, Israeli security would be strengthened by a new US-Iran détente.

When Nixon went to China and Reagan embraced Mikhail Gorbachev, they were criticized for their boldness. Today they are applauded for not only changing the bilateral relationship favorably, but the dynamics of world politics as well. Obama has the same opportunity, a way to transform a most nettlesome region with exceptional stakes for the United States. Notably, the two countries share many interests - stability and security, above all.

Iran must do its part in such a process, but we can't expect it to respond more energetically than our own actions warrant. The United States is more powerful than Iran, we surround it militarily, and have attempted, time and again, to bring its government down. It is Washington that must take steps to undo the failed policies of coercion before we can expect Tehran to reciprocate. But reciprocate it will. Its interests are as clear as ours, and they all point to a better bilateral relationship.

John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist at MIT's Center for International Studies, and author of a new study, "A New Diplomatic Approach to Iran."

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