Something Unexpected in the U.S.-Iran Relationship

Beneath the bluster—Iranian patrol boats reportedly playing chicken with U.S. warships; President Bush’s statements about “containing” Iran—there’s a significant shift under way in the relationship between Iran and the United States. And nearly everyone is missing it.

In the first week of January 2008, as most Americans were focused on the presidential campaign and the Iowa caucuses, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared in a speech in Yazd that Iran was not quite ready to resume full relations with the United States.

Mr. Khamenei (and not the far more colorful President Ahmadinejad), who really makes the decisions in Iran, did not rule out relations with the U.S. at some unspecified future time, and pointedly remarked that “we have never said this relationship should be cut forever.”

By Iran’s standards, Mr. Khamenei’s public speech was as close to an olive branch as is possible, and it’s conceivable, if not actually likely, that the Bush administration will view it that way. It may be that George W. Bush will still try to give the eventual Republican candidate a much-needed boost with a salvaged Iraq and a somewhat stable Middle East, and after seven years in office, even he realizes that neither is possible without bringing Iran in from the cold.

Either way, the move caps a fairly remarkable turnaround in U.S.-Iran relations. A new war, with Iran, had looked frighteningly possible as late as in the fall, when the administration labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist entity (following Congress’ lead). But all that shifted late in the year, with the release of the anticlimactic National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran’s nuclear program—the report concluded that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons. It was followed in short order by official administration and Pentagon praise for Iran’s efforts to reign in the violence in post-surge Iraq.

There’s a certain political logic to all of this.

Mr. Bush surely realizes that his legacy will rest more on Iraq than on any other decision he has made as president. As such, the president must view the declining violence and instability in Iraq, attributable to the troop surge as well as Iran’s influence with Shia militias, as a rare glimmer of hope. The troop surge, the president knows, cannot be maintained indefinitely, even if he had a third term in office. Iran’s assistance and participation in the rebuilding of Iraq, however, particularly after a drawdown in troop numbers and American personnel, is a logistically achievable possibility.

That conciliatory approach, as far as the Iranians are concerned and despite U.S. rhetoric and sanctions over its nuclear program, already includes what is of paramount importance to the Islamic Republic: recognition of Iran as a regional power, and security, albeit unwritten and informal, from military attack or regime-change plots. The somewhat humiliating U.S. admission that it requires Iranian help in Iraq, the requests for meetings in Baghdad and the subsequent praise and recognition of Iran’s power to stem the violence, satisfied the first Iranian concern while the release of the N.I.E., for all intents and purposes, satisfied the second.

Since the release of the N.I.E. report, American allies in the Arab world also seem to have concluded that America will not go to war with Iran, and that a positive outcome in Iraq is more important to the U.S. than Arab concerns with a powerful Persia. They have virtually tripped over themselves in a rush to curry favor with Tehran. President Ahmadinejad’s invitation to Qatar in early December 2007 to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, an invitation made personally by Qatar’s emir, Sheik al-Thani, and the first ever such invitation to an Iranian president, actually coincided with the release of the N.I.E. report in Washington, and it kicked off a flurry of Arab-Iranian diplomacy that continues into 2008.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a country most concerned with Iran’s power and influence, which largely comes at its cost, followed Qatar’s suit with an unprecedented invitation to Mr. Ahmadinejad to attend the Haj pilgrimage in Mecca before the year ended, also a first for a sitting Iranian president. And Egypt, as long an adversary of the Islamic Republic as the U.S., took unusual steps in attempting a reconciliation with Tehran.

Apart from an official visit to Iran by the Egyptian deputy foreign minister, unusual in itself for countries that do not have diplomatic relations, Ali Larijani, the Supreme Leader’s close adviser and one of Iran’s most senior officials, spent a holiday in Egypt with his family, and met with Egyptian officials, including the foreign and intelligence ministers. It was an unmistakable sign that Iran’s real center of power was taking an active interest in expanding relations with the Arab world at an advantageous time and on advantageous terms to Iran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who had enthusiastically and naïvely crowed that Iran was ready to resume full diplomatic relations with Egypt only a short while before Mr. Larijani’s trip, was embarrassingly contradicted in Cairo by Mr. Larijani, who suggested that relations had a long way to go before full resumption of ties, a further indication that the Supreme Leader was not about to allow his inexperienced president a foreign policy decision before Iran could extract the maximum possible advantage. (And Mr. Ahmadinejad, apparently furious at Mr. Larijani’s diplomatic role, insisted that his visit had merely been a personal one.)

Some analysts have suggested that the Arabs, relieved that the N.I.E. report concludes that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, are open to furthering ties with Iran at a time when it actually is less of a threat, and therefore might even give them the upper hand. But that flies in the face of logic, for the Arabs, after all, know as well as President Bush does that Iran has spinning, functional centrifuges enriching uranium, a technology they themselves are years away from if they even decided to enter an arms race.

The N.I.E. report, by greatly diminishing the chance of war and by making meaningful sanctions unlikely, combined with a Western acceptance of some level of Iranian uranium enrichment on its own soil, means that the Arabs’ only alternative with respect to Iran is to become its friend.

After all, that’s where America seems headed.


Hooman Majd is an Iranian-American writer who has interpreted for two presidents of Iran during their visits to the United States. He can be reached at

Something Unexpected in the U.S.-Iran Relationship