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U.S.-Iranian Engagement: The View from Tehran

Tehran/Brussels - Genuinely normal Iran-U.S. relations may be out of reach for now, but the two could achieve a more realistic objective: beginning a long-term dialogue that minimises risks of confrontation while working on areas of mutual interest. 



''U.S.-Iranian Engagement: The View from Tehran'', the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines prospects for rapprochement based on interviews with Iranian officials and analysts. The current guarded optimism for improved ties is partially warranted – this is the most promising moment in a generation. But expectations of the two sides appear mismatched, and the gap between their positions remains large.

“Hearing Tehran’s arguments, we already find the seeds of potential misunderstandings”, says Frederic Tellier, Crisis Group’s Senior Iran Analyst. “But knowing them also means negotiators can try to neutralise them before they grow”.

Several core conclusions emerge:

For Iran, the goal has three dimensions: wide-ranging dialogue with the U.S. covering both bilateral and regional issues; targeted cooperation on specific regional files, especially Iraq and Afghanistan; and the persistent reality of deep-seated differences and an overall strategic competition. What it seeks, in other words, is a better managed, regulated and respectful rivalry.

Sanctions are taking their toll, and Iran faces a serious economic predicament. But this is highly unlikely to produce meaningful policy shifts. Iran’s decision-making on strategic issues is only marginally affected by economic considerations.

For all its benefits, normalisation with Washington would entail serious political costs for the regime. The greater tensions are with Washington, the easier it is for the regime to rally supporters, suppress dissent and invoke national unity against a common enemy. Likewise, internal competition between various factions will complicate engagement.

“Obstacles to improved relations are considerable. Iran’s endgame vision, whether concerning its nuclear program or ties to militant Arab groups, is at loggerheads with Washington’s, and there is not any certainty that its domestic system will favour a genuine shift in the relationship”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “But these difficulties make it the more important that U.S. efforts begin wisely and that, as much as possible, the administration take into account Iran’s outlook and perceptions, even if it does not accept them”.

 June 3, 2009


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