Thursday, March 13, 2008

Better Relations? Why Not?

During President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the U.S. last fall, he said during a meeting with religious leaders that Iran was open to such exchanges. However, there have been several Congressional Delegation (CODEL) attempts, none of which have been successful due to difficulties in getting visas from Iran. Dozens of members of Congress have expressed interest in going to Iran, though only some have a sincere interest in working towards normalization of relations, while others would use such a trip for their own purposes.

The question of intentions for wanting to go to Iran is a serious issue that is not taken lightly inside the regime. In a meeting in Iran with the Deputy Foreign Minister for North and Central America Ali Rezaei, I asked about the prospects for Congressional/Majlis exchanges. Rezaei responded that such delegations might be possible, but “the timing is so important.” He pointed to the upcoming elections as an excuse for a delay in such a delegation, but said requests should be submitted to the appropriate channels and they would be considered.

Following the discussion about Congressional delegations, we discussed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s January speech in Yazd in which he said he would be the first to approve U.S.-Iran relations if deemed beneficial. Ali Rezaei noted that positions in Iran at the highest level view the topic of relations with the U.S. as a live debate. He also said reiterated Ayatollah Khamenei’s position that relations with the U.S. is not easy and can’t be done overnight. But, as soon as the situation is acceptable, Rezaei asked “why not?”

He said Iranians see many contradictory signals coming from the U.S. and the debate in Iran centers on a cost-benefit analysis of the issue. Most people in the regime do not yet see the benefits of a relationship with the U.S. They argue that they do not see honesty from the U.S. side. Instead, they only see a desire to diminish Iran’s power, rule and influence worldwide. Elements in the Islamic Republic’s regime view the U.S. as seeking to diminish Iran’s capabilities either through engagement or confrontation. And, they see preconditions as a form of submission. They are waiting for the U.S. not to be aggressive and they argue that it is time for the U.S. to change its behavior if it wants better relations.

Another element of the cost-benefit analysis is the perception of the U.S. in the region. Iran sees itself as having a better reputation in the region than the U.S. Some in the regime argue that Iran may hurt its reputation by opening up to the U.S. As Rezaei put it, “We don’t want to be a card in the hand of the U.S. or Israel.”

Rezaei said that he sees the lack of alternative debates inside the U.S. about Iran as the biggest obstacle towards normalization of relations. However, he underscored that small steps towards normalization of relations are still worth pursuing.

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