Get over it: Let's talk to Iran

January 05, 1998|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- ''What do Americans think now about the taking of the hostages?'' an Iranian official asked me a couple weeks ago, just after his president, Mohammed Khatami, called for dialogue with the United States.

''Not much,'' was my answer. Nearly 19 years have passed since the November day in 1979 when Iranians charged the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, seizing 90 representatives of the U.S. government -- the last 52 of whom were released 444 days later. ''Nineteen years is a very long time for Americans.''

Ignorance not bliss

We generally take history as it comes, pleading ignorance of events that happened before we were old enough to understand. That ignorance may not be blissful, but it generally allows us to get on with the business of the day. Iranians, like Serbians and hosts of other peoples, live daily with hurts and slights of the past, back to the cruelties of the Christian Crusades and the Muslim conquests of centuries long gone -- or at least to several 20th-century Anglo-American attempts to bring Iran (or its oil) under our control.

A lot has happened in 19 years. We seized and hold more than $10 billion in Iranian property and accounts in the United States. President Carter, with the help of television news operations, politicized the hostage-taking to the point that it may have cost him re-election. Eight Americans were killed in a botched helicopter rescue attempt. We covertly aided and encouraged Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. We shot an airplane of ordinary Iranians out of the sky -- by mistake.

The Iranians, under what seemed to be almost medieval rule by (( religious leaders, were often brutal at home, and seemed to be using oil money, terror and anything else at their disposal to spread their particular Islamic doctrines to the edges of the Muslim world and beyond. We, of course, do exactly the same kinds of things -- without torture and bombs, one hopes -- to zTC spread our secular versions of democracy.

The surprise that may have led to talk of dialogue came from the other side. Iran, it seems, has democracy of its own. Last fall, Mr. Khatami, considered a moderate opposition candidate, was elected with 70 percent of the vote. He is a cleric himself and had to be approved by ayatollahs to get on the ballot, but he and the voters stunned the world and, perhaps, themselves, too.

''This may seem an odd thing to say,'' said a United Nations official serving there, ''but Iran is enjoying a greater degree of democracy than it has ever had in its history.'' That quote is from a report by one of two American women in Iran for 10 days after being invited to a UNICEF conference on children's health this month in Tehran, Catherine O'Neill, the founder of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. She is also my wife. The other woman was Dr. Jane Schaller of Tufts University.

The whole Iranian-American relationship has been odd, indeed, for more than a half-century. It was the Central Intelligence Agency that planned and financed the 1953 overthrow of Iran's elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, to put the shah back on his throne. Since 1979, we have done our best to isolate Iran, but we have also succeeded in isolating ourselves.

In fact, most of the professional women the two Americans met were trained in the United States or had family here. The country's health minister, a man first appointed by the founding father of this revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini, served one term and later was reappointed to a second term by President Rafsanjani.

So where are we? President Clinton quickly responded that we would welcome dialogue, specifying, though, that the Iranians must satisfy official American concerns about terrorism, about opposition to American peace plans for the Middle East and about development of nuclear weapons. Honor must be paid to American policy over these 18 years, said the president, his spokesmen and important editorial pages in New York and Washington, before real dialogue is possible.

A failed policy

But the isolation policy has already failed. Not only did it increase rather than decrease the control of men calling the United States the ''Great Satan,'' it was arguably responsible for such things as Iran's nuclear chase. Would Iran be building nuclear weapons if we had remained engaged there, or if we had not encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade the country?

Should we plan on another 19 years of isolation -- while our allies merrily do profitable business -- or should we take a new look at what we are doing and why? In another 17 years we could match our 36 years of isolating Cuba. This one, though, is a bigger bit of foolishness, in time and people and ignorance. Cuba is a poor country of 11 million people, one of whom we don't like. Iran has 70 million people and real resources, including oil. The old policy has failed and, wherever the invitation comes from, it is time for us to face the reality.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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