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Guest Voice

U.S., Iran Both Need an Attitude Change

By Richard W. Murphy

As she prepares for her role as Secretary of State, Senator Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Obama foreign policy team should consider how a new American-Iranian relationship might advance American interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, and conceivably even the Arab-Israeli peace process.

This will not be easy. Thirty years have passed since the Iranian Revolution without formal diplomatic relations or any sustained dialogue between Washington and Tehran, and mutual suspicion remains entrenched.

Iran readily recites past actions such as our support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the congressional appropriation of funds to advance democracy in Iran as evidence of America's intent to overturn the Iranian regime and meddle in Iranian affairs.

Americans have bitter memories of Iranian students seizing the U.S. Embassy and its personnel in Tehran in 1979, Iran's suspected role in hostage-taking in Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s, and its supplying weapons and training to select Iraqi and Lebanese groups. But few Americans recall how the Iranians were helpful to the United States in Afghanistan after our invasion in 2001 in actively supporting the Bonn conference agenda to help rebuild the new Afghanistan state and in supporting the Afghan parliament's endorsement of Hamid Karzai as its president.

So changing American attitudes about Iran is as important as changing Iranian attitudes about the U.S. We have gotten into the habit of thinking about the Middle East as if it were "America's backyard," casually denying the interests of other states, including Iran, in their own neighborhood.

This is one reason that Tehran befriended the whole range of Iraqi Shi'a parties, creating internal strife and adding potential complications to U.S. military withdrawal. Iran has also built its influence in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza through arms supplies, training and economic investments. Its patronage of the Lebanese Shi'a party, Hizbullah, helped develop a militia force that held its own against the Israeli military in 2006 and has faced down the Lebanese government since then. Its similar relationship with Hamas has brought about further complications in the Arab-Israeli conflict, dividing Palestinian unity (we too have done our share of dividing the Palestinians). The Iranian nuclear program and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threatening rhetoric have worried the West and the Arab world and persuaded many Israelis that Iran constitutes their gravest existential challenge.

In sum, Iran is in a position to activate elements opposed to an Israeli-Palestinian accord or a Syrian-Israeli peace settlement, and generally to raise the temperature between Israel and its neighbors. Conversely, it is also in a position to help calm tensions and open the way for solutions to be found.

The Bush administration has focused its Iran policy on the nuclear issue and has pushed for sanctions, only lately adopting the approach initiated by European allies to encourage Tehran to open up its nuclear program to rigorous inspections. But this combination of carrots and sticks so far has not produced a positive response and the Iranian nuclear program has reportedly developed more quickly than appeared possible just a few months ago.

Sanctions already imposed on Iranian banks and other interests have damaged the country's growth rate and thereby the general public - which has been largely sympathetic to Americans even if not toward its government - more than they have hurt the regime. Similarly, the use of force against Iran by the United States and its allies would likely create more problems than it would solve.

There are several ways to signal our interest in a new approach: broadening educational exchanges and sporting events, for example. The official dialogue itself should start between lower level officials but the Iranian officials involved must be clearly identified as licensed to speak on behalf of their government.

The negotiations must not be half-hearted approaches simply to create the appearance that "we have tried" and now have no choice but to return to previous adversarial policies

For Washington to sustain an American-Iranian dialogue will at some point require that Iran drop its threats against Israel and affirm its readiness to support a future settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis. However, Washington cannot expect this or other Iranian policies to change as a precondition of our dialogue with Tehran.

On the other hand, Iran will predictably seek far-reaching changes in U.S. policy towards Iran and the region as a whole. Whether or how to provide these policy changes will only become clear once engagement is underway.

The road to improved U.S.-Iranian relations will be rocky but the possible mutual benefit to both American and Iranian interests is evident. The time to start is now.

Mr. Murphy is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. He served as Ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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Comments (23)

rizvisqa Author Profile Page:

By all reasonable accounts and perceptions, Mr Murphy's views need not to be refuted by any reasonable mind in the East and the West.In my humble view,the prescription indoctrinated by Mr Murphy regarding the promotion of thaw in the US- Iran relations can highly be befitting if the incoming administration of Brack Obama may correctly and positively follow the smart power -US doctrine in persuing the moderate trajectory of the US foreign policy.

kohsar240 Author Profile Page:

The US has not understood Iran. One of the reason for that is Israeli lobby and propaganda which opposes and undermines any effort to improve US-Iran relations. Another is that US is trapped in the tangle of "ally" with Arab despots, which also opposes any US-Iran relation improvement. Israel advocates the overthrow of Iranian government while Arab rulers want the status quo, meaning keeping Iran isolated but not replaced with a secular regime which in turn would turn the table against these Arab rulers, as Iran would no longer be isolated with a secular government. Another major US policy problem is the lack of understanding of the complexity of US-Iran relations. US quite literally treats Iran as Al Qaeda or a headless, aimless terrorist organization. On the contrary, Iran has specific and legitimate security needs and concerns. US should assess and reassess how much gain by Iran is tolerable and what it means for the US and how US can turn gains by Iran to its advantage such as Iran becoming a stabilizing force in the region. If Iran becomes a powerful regional power and US ally, US can pressure Pakistan from denying the mess it generates, broker peace between Israel and Arabs and much more. If left to Arabs, there is none and all those tried before failed to bring permanent stability in the region.

dr_vaman Author Profile Page:

Change of thinking in USA is not going to happen as long as Iran has not paid for their taking US embassy hostages in 1979. The problem then was a violation of UN agreement about the embassies and the current President of Iran was the one who directed taking the embassy hostages. No American will ever forget that. Iran always barks and does things against US and the people of Iran may not realize that as long as pending issues like that are not solved, nothing will change. The Iranian people can only bring change. With no change in their administration, US will not do anything. Probably, neither Iran needs US nor US needs Iran at this time and probably in the foreseeable future.

jailkkhosla Author Profile Page:

I went to college in the US and many of my classmates were students from Iran. What was remarkable was the disdain they had for Islam which to them was a despicable Arabic cult. It was the Iranians who introduced me to Islamic books such as the Koran and the hadiths and they stressed the nonsense that the books taught. Here is a sample.

The founder of Islam, Muhammad, used to earn a living by armed robbery. Before the Meccans surrendered he used to attack Meccan caravans.

After he defeated the Meccans he turned upon the rich Jewish tribes. One such tribe was the Banu Quraiza which had never raised a hand against this bandit prophet. He attacked, and killed 800 male Jews in one evening. He then sold the widows and orphans into slavery with his take being 20%. He also stole all their land and other porperty and distributed to his fellow robebrs, keeping 20% for himself.

He kept a 15 year old widow, Rayhana, as his slave concubine to warm his bed.

The test to determine whether a male Jew was old enough to be beheaded was whether or not the Jew had grown pubic hair. Boys as young as ten were murdered by Muhammad.

Here is a hadith as proof.

From Sunan Abu Dawud

Book 38, Number 4390:

Narrated Atiyyah al-Qurazi:

I was among the captives of Banu Qurayzah. They (the Companions) examined us, and those who had begun to grow hair (pubes) were killed, and those who had not were not killed. I was among those who had not grown hair.

hgcsato Author Profile Page:

@SHIVEH

The problem is that the Israelis want to force Iranians to accept Israel and its racist, Apartheid regime of bogus and Faustian ways...and Iranians simply refuse to accept that. Very simple!

Now, the Israelis think they can get USA to do its bidding, which is absurd. They also want to stand in Iran's way for development and that is a BIG mistake. Hence, Iran is developing its own regional interests to see whether a smallish "country" of 6m people can push Iranians around or not. So far, Iran has proven itself to have won the upperhand and frustrated the plans and efforts of the Israelis. Again, very simple and factual.

The final point is whether America will finally realise that it has its own national interests or it must subordinate itself to small, racist, divisive grouping that is hardly a nation (in the true historical context)!

timothy2me Author Profile Page:

Left out of the article was the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner by the US Navy nor did the article mention Bush’s “axis of evil” speech that followed Iranian help as a go between for the US with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. That also led to the election of Ahmadinejad. Bush has taken every opportunity to poke a stick in their eye and they responded in kind.

Ahmadinejad has less than a year left and then he will be gone too. There is no reason that relations between the US an Iran can’t be normalized and the friction be abated. It doesn't take carrots or stick just rational dialog.

The right-wingers will lose a boogieman.

hyperlexis Author Profile Page:

Well, so what, I'm actually a US Army three-star General!

I guess we should all start watching "unbiased" non-US media like you? What would you recommend so we could learn the Truth, like you? Al-Jazeera perhaps? Al-Hayat? The Guardian? A little something in Farsi? Portugese? The Watchtower, perhaps? Pravda? All such unbiased bastions of journalistic integrity.

You might be an anti-bomb kinda guy and that's fine. Lots of people have always been morally opposed to the atom bomb, including a lot of Nobel prize winners. People can respect that and I do as well.

But if you think you can convince most thinking people that US doesn't need its arsenal, nor Britain, France, China, India or the others, well good luck. Even better luck if you think that the fact a normal country like France or the US has them per-se means a dangerous, terror-sponsoring regime like Sudan or Chad or Lybia or Iran or N. Korea is equally entitled.

And FYI, I don't think a single captured Islamic terrorist mastermind has ever testified he sent out one of his suicide bomber operatives as a symbolic protest to the a-bomb. That gig went out with the burning monks in Vietnam. The current Islamic psychos care about recapturing southern Spain for Islam and banging 72 heavenly virgins, not the sad 'unfairness' of our so stubbornly denying their bosses nuclear WMDs. Darn it all!

ripvanwinkleincollege Author Profile Page:

From a purely geopolitical standpoint, being allied with Iran makes a lot more sense than being allied with Saudi Arabia. The Iranians are a lot more like the US and we share common objectives in wanting to stabilize Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan against Wahabi-inspired extremists eminating out of the Arabian Peninsula. If they had accepted the existence of Israel, I suspect we would have allied ourselves with them long ago. If the only major sticking point in that area is sharing the water resources of the Jezreel valley, then I suggest Israel get off its butt and make peace with Syria.

nsu1203 Author Profile Page:

The thing you're basing your entire argument on is what you've seen in the American media or, based on your obvious hostility, Faux News. The US has no greater "moral standing" in the world than any of these "rogue states." So you save all of your right-wing, holier than thou BS for the Faux News crowd. You have absolutely NO BASIS for any of your arguments. Your opinion does not equal fact. "Rogue states" as opposed to what "complacent docile states" that cave to every US demand?

lol "American, not your people." lol I'm actually American and a US Marine Corps veteran.

Iran doesn't need nuclear weapons, North Korea doesn't need nuclear weapons. Why does the US? Why does Israel? Why does India, Pakistan, Britain, France...? The list goes and on and on of "western" hypocrisy. Stop treating people as if they are ignorant buffons and maybe they wouldn't be at your door with bombs.

"Proxy wars", how about some real wars where Iranian tanks are rumbling across someone's border in the name of "justice." People aren't fools, there are tyrants all over the world but it's funny how the US doesn't get involved until there is something to be gained. Iraq was no greater threat to the US than the Congo, yet there are no US troops in the Congo.

windrivers Author Profile Page:

Hyperlexis, actually it was Iraq that started the war with Iran in 1980. If you recall they also used WMD's against Iran during the war. During the same time they used them against the Kurds.
You might even recall 1953, when the CIA/MI6 overthrew a democratic government and installed a dictator the Shah.

nsu1203 Author Profile Page:

The thing you're basing your entire argument on what you've seen in the American media or, based on your hostility, Faux News. The US has no greater "moral standing" in the world than any of these "rogue states." So you save all of your right-wing, holier than thou BS for the Faux News crowd. You have absolutely NO BASIS for any of your arguments. You opinion does not equal fact. "Rogue states" as opposed to what "complacent docile states" that cave to every US demand?

lol "American, not your people." lol I'm actually American and US Marine Corps veteran.

Iran doesn't need nuclear weapons, North Korea doesn't need nuclear weapons. Why does the US? Why does Israel? Why does India, Pakistan, Britain, France...? The list goes and on and on of "western" hypocrisy. Stop treating people as if they are ignorant buffons and maybe they wouldn't be at your door with bombs.

hyperlexis Author Profile Page:

"How many wars has Iran started?"

Um well that little war they started with Sunni Iraq back in the 80s where a few million people were killed, and now all those nasty little proxy wars they happily engage in, through their people crossing borders into Iraq to kill our (our meaning American, not your people) soldiers, and the funding they give to Syria to fund wars and political assisinations in Lebanon via their Shiite Hezbolah army, and funding to their other proxy army Hamas, and....

Save that BS morsal equivalence argument about the US not needing the bomb or that rogue, state sponsors of terrorism like Iran or N. Korea should have it 'just because.' 'Cause no, they shouldn't.

nsu1203 Author Profile Page:

lol Bellicose warmongering? How many wars has Iran started? How many countries has Iran invaded? Is the US nuclear program subject to international inspection?

To me these are matters of fundamental fairness. You allow group "A" to have nuclear weapons because they are your friends and you try to deny group "B" nuclear weapons because they don't agree with you. Imagine how that sounds when you are on the other side of the table.

You people are insane and arrogant to think that you get to determine what weapons a nation has in its arsenal all while you have them yourself.

hyperlexis Author Profile Page:

Ah yes, another jack-poor article and another bunch of hater responses by the WAPOs usual litany of anti-US, Israel-bashing Arab terrorist sympathizers.

The fact is that with the collapse of the petroleum market, Iran and Venezuela are heading the way of the USSR. The author completely ignores this. Cheap oil prices are destroying their regimes' abilities to continue with their bellicose warmongering, while still propping up their autocratic rule over their people. (Amazing how peaceful and quiet Putin (aka Medvedev) has recently been, now that his oil industry has tanked....) Like Venezuela, Iran's budget is shattered by cheap oil, and therefore all those happy little subsidies for its citizens have come under immense strain to maintain, and inflation and joblessness are also very high. Millions of young people in the Islamic world, and virtually no decent jobs to give them. The younger generatuions of Iranians (the ones less insane than the older, chador-shrouded crazies) are well aware of this fact.

Reagan was able to outspend the Soviets to the bargaining table. Money sometimes beats ideology. Energy conservation and other methods of keeping oil prices low is now one of the best methods we have at this point to do the same to pressure the Iranian regime and try to peacefully end its mad quest for an atomic bomb. The Saudis and Jordanians and othe Sunnis are as angry and afraid of the Iranian crazies as the rest of us. So funny when Arabs secretly hope that Israel or the US will again save their as-es by bombing one of their fellow Muslim countries.... They, thank you Saudis, have at least been helpful to us in keeping down the oil prices. Hopefully they will keep it up.

The author seems to think we need more from Iran than they need from the West. I disagree.

Merry Christmas to all!

faithfulservant3 Author Profile Page:

Although generally much fairer than most articles I see on Iran, you still skipped a few salient points.

One, America's support of a shah who brutally oppressed the people and absconded with a great deal of money. In addition, you forget that it was the shah and this money that led to the hostage crisis. You also overlook the fact that Iraq and Iran used chemical and biological weapons in the war with Iran; no one in the US complained too loudly. You also forget that the US military shot down an Iranian commercial jet liner in the 1980's, and the fact that Israel is nuclear.

Perhaps, most glaringly of all you forget that the US, just like Iran and many others, has found it in their own interest to arm allies as a form of self-defense. The suggestions Mr. Murphy makes here are too simplistic and do not go far enough. He also makes the common mistake of assuming that Palestinians, Lebanese Shiites, and Syrians don't think for themselves, or have their own political grievances, and will do whatever Tehran says like robots.

caniholdadolla Author Profile Page:

Iran is a hell hole.

billrowe Author Profile Page:

Israel is an apartheid country that is stealing Palestinian lands and is an international rogue ignoring international law and moral perogatives. It has been able to pursue its actions because of US irrational support that is not in the US interest. If the US removes its irrational support for Israel, then there would be no problem with Iran. Iran is becoming a strong nation (economically because of natural resources,technical advancement,an militarily)and is in a position to provide various types of support to organizations taking a rational,legal,moral position relative to Israel crimes (Hamas,Hezbollah ....).In this way Iran does represent a real threat to Israel's existence as a rogue country,not militarily, but because of its support for organizations actively fighting Israeli criminal behavior.Israel lobbyists have convinced US politicians and most of the public that Iran is a military threat to Israel and the US (threat to Israel is equated with one to the US). Iran has stated its readiness to recognize any Israeli-Palestinian solution agreeable to the Palestinians, but the US politicians brazenly lie and prevaricate to the public to support Iran as a US enemy. In truth the US need only redefine its policy rationally and it would find many mutually-beneficial ways to cooperate with Iran as a normal country. But like towards Cuba and LAtin American countries, US policy is stupid,arrogant,imperialistic and stubborn.Unfortunately,like bully people,their myopic perspectives,attitudes, and actions seldon change without some trauma,because they are unwilling to consider that they are wrong,or have a problem. This does not mean the theocratic Iran is asystem that is best for the Iranians themselves;but their type of domestic politics os for the Iranians to decide.

Shiveh Author Profile Page:

hgcsato

What is the problem between Iran & Israel? Why did Iranians get involved with the Arab Israeli conflict? What do Iranians expect to get out of this? May be this problem needs to be solved inside Iran first before Iranians start negotiating for their share of global pie!

hgcsato Author Profile Page:

Dear Mr. Murphy,

You are perhaps the textbook example of an optimist diplomat. But the rough game of the Triple Zionist Marching Band (Biden, Clinton and Emmanuel) at the forthcoming White House is essentially mortgaged up to the hilt with the pro-Israeli lobby. This means that there shall be no real Arab-Israeli peace (Palestinians and Syrians) simply because The Lobby does not let voices of reason (such as yours) to be heard.

The best that anyone can hope for on the Iran-USA front is a cold detente, alas that is not on the radar screen either (as much as USA needs Iranian assistance to tackle the real problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

This is reality and for as long as America is set on the 1950's riddle of demanding an unconditional Iranian capitulation, best described as a foolish phantasm, then it will be a "definite may be not" for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately!

yeolds Author Profile Page:

While Mr Murphy has cited USA national interest, he omited any mention of the NATIONAL intersts of Iran, Syria, Palestinians and Iraqis. That he did not mention Israel, one of the sorest issues in the world since soon after the WWII, who is not member of any international treaties on nuclear armaments, yet has at least 150 such weapons [according to Mr Carter, the ex President of USA] is strikingly propagandistic, for with USA help Isreal has ignored most international laws and numerous UN rulings.

Finally Mr Murphy has failed to indicate to USA citizens where he plans to get money to further these colonial power like interests while the USA economy is collapsing.
I am tired of talking heads who propose to spend the future income of the yet unborn on wars, threats, corruption and spin induced dreams of grandious plans, without the money to execute these plans [this applies to other countries beside the USA, like Uk, Canada, etc]

The REAL NATIOANAL INTEREST OF THE USA is solving the financial mess at home, to enable her citizens to have a reasonable life - which does not mean rising unemployment, rising bankrupcies, collapse of pension plans, unaffordable medical treatments, etc.

Worry about your national debt, your balance of payments, your collapsing state and municipal finances, falling services for citizens THAT IS YOUR NATIONAL INTERST, at least according to recent USA polls.

Farzin1 Author Profile Page:

Great. Mr. Murphy you make a lot of sense. Wish the policy makers would think the same. Let's not forget the overthrow of Iranians' elected prime minister doctor Mossadeg in 1954 by CIA and numerous unjustifiable economic and political sanctions imposed on Iran over the past 30 years. The sanctions are hurting common Iranians the most. Therefore public opinion will remain antagonistic towards USA policy makers as long as Iranians don't see a genuine policy change by America that actually considers the interest of Iranian public the least without denying them the freedom of choice. No matter who is in charge in Iran, The Iranians have come to understanding that the USA doesn't care about what Iranians interest are. USA topples democracies, forces sanctions, invade countries and promote self style self interest democracies that are in-tune with it's own. USA supports the dictators in The middle east while fighting Iranian self created democracy by the Iranians voters. It is Iranians who decide when to change their government and when to change the system of democracy in Iran. If all the options like freedom of commerce, trade, exchanges of opinion, culture and respect for their democracy are available to the Iranians and the system does not deliverer, then America should be rest assured that Iranians will change their system of democracy without American's meddling at all. Because neither the public nor the system have been given the chance to test their democratic system fairly over the past 30 years, nothing will change either by Iranians or by Americans sanctions.
Change is all we need.

ikez78 Author Profile Page:

Only in the eyes of the American left is the USA and Iran on the same moral footing.

What happened to the common sense of you fools?

mnaseem95 Author Profile Page:

IT WILL BE NICE TO SEE USA AND ISREAL LIVE IN PEACE WITH THE WORLD.MAYBE USA AND ISREAL DO NOT NOW THAY R THE ONE HO CREATED TERRORISTS.USA AND ISREAL GO ON KILLING PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD,WHEN THAY FIGHT BACK THAY CALLED TERRORISTS.IF USA AND ISREAL STOP KILLING THEIR WILL NAVER BE ANY TERRORISTS.USA AND ISREAL HAVE KILLED ALMOST 50M MUSLIMS IN LAST 60 YEARS,STIL USA AND ISREALI R KILLINGCOUNTLESS PEOPLE EVERY DAY,AND THEIR IS NO END IN SITE.WILL USA AND ISREAL EVER STOP KILLING.NO HOPE NO END IN SITE

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