Experts told Congress this week that the time is right for the United States to engage Iran on a number of issues, not just its nuclear ambitions.
The United States severed relations with Iran in 1980, after negotiations failed to free 52 Americans taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by militant students. Since then, the United States has condemned Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, its support for terrorism, and its human rights record.
At hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one dominant theme emerged: it is time for the United States to have a direct dialogue with Iran to discuss all these issues.
"The time is right to engage Iran, not just on the nuclear issue, but much more broadly on the issues of terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestine-Israel equation, on Iran's security and, fundamentally, on her place in the international community," said Frank Wisner, a retired career diplomat..
The experts also urged U.S. policy-makers to separate the desire for a change of government and democracy in Iran from the nuclear issue. Vali Nasr is a professor of National Security Affairs. He says, as tensions escalate between the United States and Iran, Washington's overt support for democracy in Iran could become counter-productive.
"It will cast democracy advocates as unpatriotic, and is likely to be futile, as, at a time of war and nationalism, democracy will surely lose to nationalism," he said.
Ambassador Wisner also pointed out that there is no clear and credible democratic opposition for the United States to work with in Iran.
"It is divided and dispirited; and the assault on the nuclear issue is an assault on national honor that has the habit of unifying Iranians," he said.
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany have been meeting to discuss what measures to take to press Iran to give up its uranium enrichment activity, which the United States believes is aimed a developing weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is for energy production only. In addition to a package of economic and political incentives, another option being considered is sanctions.
Julia Nanay is an energy analyst. She cautions that sanctions on Iran's biggest export - oil - would only have a limited impact on Tehran, but could have wider repercussions, inflating world oil prices.
"The more that Iran is in the news, and the more that the U.S. presses for sanctions and holds out the threat of military action, the higher oil prices stay," she said. "Any news about the easing of tensions leads to a price drop. Any news that military action takes place would drive oil prices up over $90 or $100 a barrel."
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation, agrees, and comes back to a point that several of the experts made - that international pressure should focus on rattling Iran's already shaky economy.
"It is unrealistic to expect oil importers to stop importing Iranian oil in a tight, high-priced oil market," he said. "I think, instead, the focus should be on denying Iran loans, foreign investment and favorable trade deals."
Iran poses many challenges to U.S. policy-makers. But the experts all agree that direct dialogue must be the starting point of any successful strategy. In the words of Ambassador Wisner, "diplomacy is not only the art of the possible; diplomacy is about exploring what might be possible."