Could the Bush administration's effort to assemble an international anti-terrorism coalition be an opportunity to improve U.S. Iranian relations? Washington broke ties with Tehran after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Iranian reformers now wonder if the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States offer an opportunity for renewing relations with the United States.
Iranian leaders condemned the September 11 terrorist attack and called for a global campaign against terrorism, but they rejected joining a U.S. coalition. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei denounced U.S. air strikes in neighboring Afghanistan, but his government offered help for search and rescue missions if needed. And, in some spontaneous outbursts, Iranian youngsters poured into the streets of Tehran to show their sympathies instead of anti-American hostility.
According to Toronto-based political analyst Ramin Jahanbegloo, the current situation offers an opportunity to edge Iran closer to the United States. And that, he adds, would help strengthen President Mohammad Khatami's reform efforts inside Iran. "I think the dialogue between Iran and the United States is no more a possibility but a necessity because we should stop relying on old answers our urgent new questions," he said. "It's for sure that the dialogue between Iran and the United States can help integrate Iran into the international community. And most important, it would help the reform movement and strengthen the civil society."
For political analyst Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University, Tehran and Washington share an interest in the removal of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan. "There is no love lost between Iran and the Taleban," he said. "The two almost went to war three years ago. Taleban create instability on Iran's borders. It's a source of harmful drug traffic and creates for Iran a large Afghan refugee problem."
But, Professor John Calabrese of American University in Washington says that common interest does not translate into rapprochement any time soon. "The problem [which] has been over the last ten years, is opinion has been divided in Washington over how far and how fast to proceed with normalizing relations with Iran," he explains. "And, the mirror image is the Iranian government is divided itself over how far to go, what gestures or concessions to make. I don't really see this particular challenge as necessarily being the harbinger for much beyond talk."
President Khatami's more moderate voice has melted two decades of diplomatic isolation and repaired Iran's relations with European trading partners. His approval of cultural and sports exchanges with the United States has started a warming trend toward dialogue.
But according to analyst Mark Gasiorowski of Louisiana State University, the process still needs nurturing. Mr. Gasiorowski has been monitoring U.S.-Iranian relations for the past 20 years. "It's going to be a slow, gradual process," he said. "Of course the same was the case with the U.S. Chinese rapprochement in the 1970s or U.S.-Soviet rapprochement in the 1930s. It takes a long, long time to overcome a really big gulf of the sort that exists."
Mr. Gasiorowski points to the strong congressional opposition to removing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Iran, which the U.S. State Department still lists as a terrorist-sponsoring nation.
But Iran-watchers agree Iran will improve its world image and its relations with the west and Washington by sitting quietly on the sidelines in the Afghan conflict just as it did during the U.S-led war against Iraq in 1991.