Once upon a time there was a Third World nation in Asia with an ancient and magnificent civilization in which the centers of power were dominated by ideologues resolutely opposed to the values of democracy and who espoused a vicious anti-American agenda. The heads of that rogue regime stirred up hatred towards the U.S. by fueling revolutionary sentiments at home while providing aid to anti-American guerrillas abroad as part of what was regarded as a global ideological confrontation.It was not surprising, therefore, that the Republican administration and lawmakers of the two major parties, backed by a key lobby representing foreign interests, were promoting a policy that called for overthrowing that anti-American regime and replacing it with one that was friendly to the United States. Indeed, Washington under Democratic and Republican administrations alike had refrained from maintaining a diplomatic relationship with that Asian government and led an international effort to isolate it.

But resisting political pressure, the tough-minded president and his realpolitik foreign-policy advisors decided that, based on American’s geopolitical interests, the U.S. had to launch a diplomatic initiative aimed at engaging that Asian adversary. The need to contain common strategic threats and to end a bloody regional war gave birth to a major diplomatic coup that helped strengthen America’s international position for years to come …

This reads very much like the diplomatic opening of China in the early 1970s. But is it possible that in a few years it could also be the way historians will describe changes taking place in the relationship between the U.S. and a Third World country in North Asia, Iran?

Students of International Relations 101 explore that amazing Nixon-goes-to-China chapter in American diplomatic history as a classic example of realpolitik. This school of thought assumes that nations advance their interests vis-à-vis other nations based on a realistic examination of the military, political, and economic balance of power. Governments may disagree over values that drive their respective national politics, but that should not set obstacles on their ability to work together to advance their common interests.

Indeed, according to a historian of the Sino-American relationship, James Mann, Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, who initiated the opening to Beijing, gave Chinese leaders a clear message that the United States was not going to be involved in China’s domestic politics. When China’s Chou En-lai tried to talk to Kissinger about the wave of violence (also known as the Cultural Revolution) that radical elements in the Chinese Communist Party were leading, Kissinger said that the United States had no interest in China’s affairs at home—and now let’s get to the business of battling the Russian Bear.

This is not the kind of response that a member of the Islamist movement that controls Iran would receive from the Bush administration, which seems more committed to idealistic Wilsonian principles than the traditional realistic policies advanced by Nixon and Kissinger. “Our security is not merely found in spheres of influence or some balance of power,” President Bush declared about the need to use American power to pursue American ideals—as opposed to hard U.S. interests—during his address to the UN.

At a time when the ideologues in the Bush administration and Congress, encouraged by the powerful Israeli lobby, are calling for another regime change—this time in Tehran as part of a crusade to bring democracy to the region—while the anti-American mullahs are strengthening their hold on power, a U.S.-Iran détente sounds more like science fiction than serious analysis. But the opening of China was conceived and executed in the midst of the Cultural Revolution and when the power of the pro-Taipei lobby was at its height. While demonstrators roaming the streets of Tehran yelling “death to America” enjoy the backing of a powerful element of the regime, one recalls the same type of activists were also a dominating force in China when Kissinger was trying to make a deal.

Elements in the Iranian leadership have been providing assistance to anti-American and anti-Israeli organizations in the Middle East, including insurgents fighting the “Great Satan” (America) in Iraq and terrorists combating the “Little Satan” (Israel) in Lebanon. But the Chinese were also assisting revolutionary guerrilla groups around the world in the 1970s—in Cuba, Vietnam, and Africa—and accusing the Soviets of lacking the same kind of resolve to confront America.

That a hawkish Cold Warrior president was creating the conditions for what amounted to a strategic alliance with a regime committed to a radical anti-American ideology had to do with calculations of balance of power and national interests. Americans were hoping to exploit the tensions between the elderly leaders of the Soviet Union and China in order to put pressure on Moscow to make concessions on nuclear arms control. Nixon expected that opening China would help improve America’s geostrategic position in the aftermath of Vietnam and create an environment that would permit a gradual extraction of U.S. troops from the Southeast Asia quagmire. The Chinese regarded the new relationship as part of a strategy to contain what they perceived as a growing threat from the Soviet Union.

Similar geostrategic calculations should have helped to drive Americans and Iranians into re-evaluating their current relationship—or lack of one—in the aftermath of 9/11 and certainly following the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, both reformers and conservative elements in Tehran were proposing a restoration of relations between the countries. And there were some signs that Washington was flirting with the notion, with realists advocating a more pragmatic approach, ranging from step-by-step “selective engagement” on a few major policy issues to a “grand bargain” that would lead to the re-establishment of normal diplomatic and economic ties.

There is no doubt that the clash-of-civilizations narrative drawn by Americans and Iranians since the 1979 revolution and ensuing seizure of the U.S. diplomats in Tehran in 1980 makes it difficult for both sides to imagine that while they might be dreaming different dreams, they share the same geostrategic bed. They have not had diplomatic relations since 1980, and formal contacts are conducted via the government of Switzerland. Yet they are now close neighbors. To the west, in Afghanistan, Americans have 13,000 troops. To the east, in Iraq, there are more than 150,000 U.S. troops backed by warships stationed next to Iran’s shores. To the north, the Americans are using old Soviet-era bases for forward operations in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.

If an Iranian were using the civilizational frames, the conclusion would be that the American infidels are now encircling the Islamic Republic as part of an imperialist-Zionist plan to defeat Iran and destroy Islam. From an American ideological perspective, the Shi’ite mullahs are perceived as a powerful component of a global radical Islamic threat that challenges American policies in the Middle East and South and Central Asia and threatens to destroy Israel.

But put on realpolitik lenses and things look quite different. It was Iran and not the U.S. that before the 9/11 attacks had been pursuing a policy to bring down the Taliban regime—at a time when U.S. allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were backing them. The Iranians were also one of the main supporters of the Northern Alliance guerrillas who helped the Americans take control of Kabul. Iran backed the selection of Karzai as Afghanistan’s new president, played a role in the economic reconstruction, and has blocked the flow of heroin out of Afghanistan through Iran.

Just as President Bush was listing Iran—and not the nuclear-equipped exporter of radical Islam, Pakistan—as a member of the Axis of Evil, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was expressing interest in opening dialogue. But officials in Washington were preoccupied with preparations for war against Iraq and did not show much interest in the overture.

Much has been written about the animosity between Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which led to one of the bloodiest wars in the region’s history, during which the U.S. tilted toward Iraq. But now America was about to invade Iraq, and MSNBC reported from Tehran, “Officials here say Iran’s Islamic leaders could hardly believe their luck.” That Washington was “about to do Iran a great service—by taking out the man whose troops, often using chemical weapons, killed more than a half million Iranians during the 1979-89 Iran-Iraq war,” is the way any Iranian nationalist would have regarded the U.S. invasion. That is also the way the Shi’ite community in Iraq viewed the ousting of Saddam—not as a step towards democracy but as a win for a repressed ethnic-religious community. Interests—national in the case of the Iranians, ethnic-religious as far as the Iraqi Shi’ites were concerned—and not ideologies, determined the initial positive reactions to the ouster. That the Iraqi Shi’ites have traditionally maintained close links to their co-religionists in Iran presented a unique opportunity to advance U.S. interests in the region, to win two strategic birds—in Baghdad and in Tehran.

The U.S. defeat of Iraq has left the Islamic Republic as the strongest regional actor by default. With a population of around 70 million, Iran dwarfs its Arab neighbors to the west and south. Moreover, Americans are worried over the links between members of the Shi’ite majority in Iran and the Shi’ites in Iraq. But a diplomatic détente between Washington and Tehran could have created the conditions for utilizing Iranian influence in Iraq to stabilize that country in a new regional security system that could have included Turkey and Saudi Arabia. After all, Iran shares with those two states, and the United States, not only a common interest in creating the basis for a pragmatic Shi’ite leadership that would be able to reach a power-sharing agreement with the Sunni minority but also in preventing Iraqi Kurds from trying to promote a Greater Kurdistan.

So it made strategic sense that, in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, Tehran would be trying to send rapprochement feelers to Washington. Surprisingly, the overtures were made not by the more moderate reformers associated with President Mohammad Khatami but by emissaries representing the more conservative Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But that actually made political sense, suggesting that contrary to the conventional wisdom, the conservative forces in Iran—and not the moderates—are in a stronger position to lead a rapprochement with the Americans.

According to several news reports, a senior Iranian official designated by Khamenei to co-ordinate a special committee on the U.S. relationship transmitted to Washington through Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, a proposal for a road map leading to the restoration of relations. The Iranian offer mentioned cutting off support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and transforming Hezbollah from a guerrilla outlet into a purely political organization.

While the Iranian offer did not lead to a major reassessment of the U.S.-Iranian relationship, it did ignite a debate between realists and neoconservative hardliners. Leading the realpolitik faction have been former foreign-policy experts such as former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, Thomas Pickering, the former ambassador to the UN, Colin Powell, and his deputy Richard Armitage. Not surprisingly, Donald Rumsfeld and his undersecretary for policy, Douglas Feith, have been opposed, recommending that regime change in Iran become the official U.S. policy and accusing Tehran of being unhelpful over Iraq and harboring al-Qaeda operators. Condoleezza Rice, a former protégé of Scowcroft, and her strategic planner for the Middle East, Robert Blackburn, have rejected Rumsfeld’s regime-change proposal, but they have failed to come up with a coherent strategy.

The result has been mixed signals emanating from Washington. After last year’s devastating earthquake in Bam, Iran received its first direct American aid in 25 years. There has been talk about sending a U.S. congressional delegation, and Iran’s UN ambassador, Muhammad Javad Zarif, has been a frequent visitor to Capitol Hill. But contacts between Washington and Tehran were put on hold while U.S. lawmakers considered legislation on Iran modeled after the Iraq Liberation Act that called for regime change. While the realists, whose position has been supported by the European Union as well as U.S. allies Egypt and Jordan, have stressed the common strategic interests Americans and the Iranians share in Iraq and Afghanistan, the neoconservatives, continuing to promote their ambitious plans to remake the Middle East as part of an alliance with Israel, have been doing their best to sabotage all efforts.

Indeed, immediately after the invasion of Iraq, the neocons, led by ex-CIA spook Reuel Gerecht, Iran-Contra alumnus Michael Ledeen, and war profiteer Richard Perle, were arguing that Iran should be targeted next for a regime change. Inside the administration, Rumsfeld and Feith were advancing those ideas, suggesting that unlike Iraq, the transformation of Iran could take place peacefully through diplomatic pressure.

“The neocons have this fantasy that they are going to groom this Iranian Lech Walesa, that NED [National Endowment for Democracy] will fund an Iranian ‘Solidarity’ and before you know it the Iranian Islamic regime, like the Polish Communist government, will implode,” a State Department official told me over lunch in March 2004. “They really believe that Iraq will become democratic and serve as a shining model to the Iranian reformers, the so-called domino effect in action, and we are going to have a bunch of pro-American and Internet-surfing Shi’ites in charge in Baghdad and Tehran, the Cool Mullahs.”

Like the weapons-for-hostages (“we brought you a cake”) plan cooked up by Ledeen and the neocons, the search for an Iranian Walesa and his band of singing ayatollahs has proved to be another pita in the sky. It was Iraq under American occupation, and not Iran, that was imploding and turning into an awful mess while the mullahs, and not the reformers, gained the upper hand in Iran’s recent parliamentary elections.

Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has become the central issue driving the neocon campaign and weakening the realists’ position. While there is a consensus in Washington as well as in major Europeans capitals that Iran should not be permitted to develop nuclear military capability, the policy divisions over how to contain that threat mirror the debate on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Realists seem to agree with the EU’s triumvirate of France, Germany, and Britain that warns of a confrontation over the nuclear issue and advocate using diplomatic carrots to engage Iran, in addition to sticks if Tehran refuses to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for nonproliferation, is advocating that Iran’s lack of co-operation be referred to the UN Security Council for the imposition of sanctions.

But it is unlikely that America’s allies in Europe will support such a move or that a confrontational approach would force the Iranians to change their policy. The Iranians deny publicly that they strive for nuclear military capability but seem to be taking steps towards that goal. And as columnist George Will pointed recently, while Iran’s regime seems to be committed to fanatical religious doctrines, “its desire for nuclear weapons is not irrational,” especially when one considers the dangerous neighborhood, near four nuclear powers—Russia, India, Pakistan, and almost certainly Israel—and the large military presence of another, the infidel United States. As CIA analysts have concluded, when it comes to the need to develop Iran’s nuclear program, whose origins go back to the regime of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the pro-American Shah, there is no disagreement between hardliners and moderates.

Hence the West can try to slow Iran’s progress towards developing a nuclear bomb and pray that when it happens— and it will happen, as it did in the cases of China, India, Pakistan, and Israel—the interests of the regime will be more in line with those of Washington. When the Iranians go nuclear, Israel will have no choice but to set aside its own ambiguity and declare that it is a nuclear power. That will create a nuclear balance of power in the Middle East between the Jewish and Islamic republics not unlike the one that exists today between the another Muslim theocracy and its Hindu rival on the Indian subcontinent. No U.S. administration will adopt a policy of encouraging Iran to go nuclear. But the preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear goals diverts attention from what should be the policy priority of Washington: to make sure that U.S. and Iranian interests become more compatible. When that happens, Washington’s attitude towards a nuclear Iran would probably not be different from the one it exhibits toward India, Pakistan, and Israel. If Washington can live with a nuclear bomb in the hands of Pakistan, a military dictatorship and an Islamic theocracy whose leaders had backed the Taliban and had—and may have—links to Osama bin Laden, and who engage in selling WMD, Washington could certainly consider adopting the same approach towards Iran.

The road map to doing business with Iran on the basis of hard American interests—and not through the search for an Iranian Lech Walesa—has been drawn by a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations led by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former CIA Director Robert Gates, who both played leading roles in encouraging the emergence of the Solidarity movement. When they conclude in their 79-page report that despite “considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction” in Iran, the country “is not on the verge of another revolution” and “those forces that are committed to preserving Iran’s current system remain firmly in control,” they are basically saying, “We knew Lech Walesa. Lech Walesa was a good friend of ours. But there is no Iranian Lech Walesa.”

While they reject the notion of a grand bargain to settle the many differences between the two countries, they propose making “incremental progress on key issues, including regional stability and nuclear issues.” Diplomacy is the only way to resolve the problems between Iran and the U.S., Gates told the press when the report was issued in July. Military action against Iran was “highly unlikely to be attempted, and, if attempted, to be successful.” Gates and Brzezinski recommend a “direct dialogue on specific issues of regional stabilization” relating to Iraq in the same way that the U.S. has been willing to negotiate with the Iranians on issues relating to the stabilization of Afghanistan. Applying the China analogy, Brzezinski suggested that Washington might offer to sign a “basic statement of principles” similar to the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué that eventually brought about the normalization in 1979. Washington’s goal lies in persuading the Iranians that the two governments can work together to advance their interests in the region. “It’s not a question that we and the Iranians would be sitting down and singing ‘kumbaya’ together,” said Gates, arguing that by improving U.S. ties with Iran, we will be advancing our national interests.

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Leon Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign-policy studies whose book on U.S. policy in the Middle East will be published next year by Palgrave Macmillan.