US-Iranian relations lack vision
Helsinki Times

Is Iran’s uranium enrichment
programme really geared towards creating a civilian nuclear energy
capacity that Iran, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty, is allowed to develop, asks
Barbara Zanchetta.

the Obama administration declared “engagement with Iran” as one of its
top foreign-policy priorities, the debate around Tehran’s nuclear
ambitions has dominated international political discourse. Is Iran’s
uranium enrichment programme really geared towards creating a civilian
nuclear energy capacity that Iran, as a signatory of the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, is allowed to develop? Or is Tehran
concealing its intentions to develop nuclear weapons? And if it is,
then how should the United States and the international community
respond to the challenge posed by a potentially nuclear-armed Iran? In
this context, the discussions evolve around highly complex technical
details: such as how much enriched uranium the US would “allow” Iran to
develop; the percentage of uranium that Iran could enrich on its soil
compared with the quantity that could be sent outside of Iran; and the
number and size of the nuclear reactors.

In short, Iran’s
nuclear programme is assessed outside the broader context of US-Iran
relations, as if this issue existed somehow in isolation. However, to
anyone familiar with the intricate, and in some cases dramatic, history
of US-Iran relations, this approach reveals a certain degree of naivety
on Washington’s part and, most significantly, a limited vision. How can
the US hope to achieve progress on a highly controversial issue when
dealing with a country and a leadership that is almost completely
It is undeniable that the nuclear issue is of crucial
importance not only for promoting the nuclear non-proliferation regime,
but also in terms of regional stability, particularly considering
Israel’s position and the concerns expressed by Iran’s Arab neighbors.
At the same time, however, on the basis of a realistic assessment of
the state of US-Iran relations it seems vital that a more wide-ranging
dialogue, geared towards building a degree of trust between the two
sides, needs to be established before seeking to deal with the single
thorniest issue.

To the contemporary observer it may be
difficult to recall that the United States and Iran were once close
allies. Yet, it is impossible to understand the motivations of the
present day enmity and mutual distrust without assessing the legacy of
America’s problematic involvement with Iran. The list of grievances is
long and has yet to be overcome: the repercussions of the CIA-sponsored
coup of 1953; the decisive tightening of Washington’s ties with the
Iranian leader during the 1970s, despite the growing internal
instability in Iran; the hostage crisis of 1979 and the immense shock
that it caused within the United States, are only a few examples.

1979, US-Iran relations have been practically non-existent. Though
tensions have repeatedly risen and abated between the 1980s and recent
years, there was never a real breakthrough. Ultimately, the legacy of
hatred and fear was never challenged. Thirty years of isolation have
only deepened the mutual suspicion on both sides, hindering any
realistic capacity to assess acutely the prospects of a renewed

Today, despite the latent and at times open
hostility, it is imperative for Washington and Tehran to seek common
ground. Iran borders Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the areas declared
to be of “utmost concern” for US foreign policy. From Washington’s
standpoint, the benefits of a constructive relationship with Tehran
would, therefore, be evident. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Iran
aligned itself with the international community in condemning the
terrorist attacks while supporting the anti-Taliban campaign in
Afghanistan. This could have been an opportunity for improving
relations that was, however, almost immediately lost in the midst of
former president Bush’s rhetoric on the “axis of evil.” But Iran’s
interest in the stabilisation of Afghanistan remains alive today.
Therefore, the United States should recognise the immense potential for
Iran’s active role in the region.

Analysts warn that Iran’s
capacity to militarise its nuclear capability is near and that the
international community should move quickly to stop this process. But
these “interventionist” views fail to consider some critical points:
first, that the non-proliferation regime is, in itself, quite
ambiguous. It allows the signatories of the NPT to enrich uranium for
peaceful purposes but not to enrich enough quantities that would permit
the creation of a nuclear weapon. Nations that use nuclear energy for
peaceful purposes also possess the theoretical “know-how” to produce
weapons, but commit not to stockpile quantities of uranium that would
enable them to do so. Hence, stating that Iran is entitled to a
peaceful nuclear programme also signifies allowing Tehran to develop
the theoretical capability to be able to build a bomb. For this reason,
it is essential to establish a degree of trust with Iran, even if it
were “demonstrated” that its nuclear programme is, indeed, meant only
for peaceful purposes.

Second, the Iranian regime has been
successful in portraying the country’s nuclear programme as a means of
internal development and progress. Therefore, it is likely that for
many Iranians the US constant criticism of the programme may come to
signify that America is, yet again, intervening in Iran’s domestic
process and opposed to Iran’s internal development and modernisation.
Moreover, the US (and in general Western) intransigence on Iran’s
nuclear programme appears one-sided and incoherent when juxtaposed to
the stance taken towards Israel (whose nuclear capability is no longer
doubted). And, historically, America’s reliance on Pakistan, deeply
grounded on geopolitical interests, was never seriously questioned
despite Pakistan’s problematic possession of nuclear weapons.

from the few signals that come from Iran, the country’s leadership
seems to be both inherently proud and adamantly insecure, a combination
that often characterises nations with a particularly multifaceted and
ancient history. Dictating conditions will probably only continue on
the one side to offend, and on the other to enhance the innate paranoia
of an increasingly fragile regime.
dialogue with Iran is crucial for
many reasons, not just and not only because of its nuclear programme.
While the US has repeatedly stated that it won’t talk with Iran “for
the sake of talking,” sometimes, when the legacies of the past are so
inherently complex, talking for the simple sake of talking may be the
precondition for success.