(photo credit: Associated Press)
In the middle of a tirade about the pointlessness of talking with the Bush administration, a senior Iranian official I met in Teheran last month abruptly paused and asked if he could speak off the record. Then he said: "What we need is an American president who will follow the example of Richard Nixon going to China."
There in a nutshell is what this Iranian government, and most Iranians I've spoken to, fervently desire from the United States: not the tactical talks offered last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice but strategic recognition of Iran as a great civilization and a regional power that must be treated, like China, as a "stakeholder" in global affairs. Grant us that, said the Iranian official I saw, and "just as with China, you'll find a government that is more responsive to your concerns, more willing to play a cooperative role."
It was interesting to hear that pitch from an officer of a government whose president has recently invited the United States, aka "global arrogance," to abandon democracy and accept the dissolution of Israel. It was a reminder that, whatever President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may say in public, obtaining recognition from Washington remains one of the Islamic regime's foremost goals - and perhaps the most powerful nonmilitary card the West holds in seeking to stop Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
But the Nixon-to-China formulation also explains why U.S.-Iranian talks, though now formally endorsed by both sides, are more likely than not to fail, if they happen at all. That's because Iran and the United States approach the option of dialogue from opposite sides of the spectrum. Iran seeks a strategic encounter, a historic moment of accommodation between two powers. The United States offers pragmatic bargaining over single issues, such as the nuclear program and Iraq.
This disconnect is not new, or limited to the Bush administration. Previous American feelers to Iran, by the Reagan and Clinton administrations, were also aimed at specific problems, such as American hostages in Lebanon. Iranian governments have mostly responded by demanding broad changes in US policy while refusing to engage on what they see as small points.
A rare exception was Iran's quiet cooperation with Bush during the early months of the US intervention in Afghanistan. But Iranian officials now bitterly point out that, in their view, their reward for that tactical coordination was Bush's "axis of evil" speech in early 2002, which affirmed the goal of overthrowing the Islamic regime.
LAST WEEK Rice seemed to go out of her way to rule out the kind of engagement Teheran wants. "Let's remember what is not happening here," she said at a press conference. "This is not a bilateral negotiation between the United States and Iran on the whole host of issues that would lead to broader relations between Iran and the United States. ... This is not a grand bargain."
So what, from Iran's point of view, is to be gained by accepting Rice's offer? There are possible sanctions to be avoided, of course, and a few economic benefits to be collected. There is also, US officials say, a narrow and twisting path that might lead from bargaining over uranium enrichment to Iraq, to terrorism in Israel and democracy in Lebanon, and perhaps finally to some larger US-Iranian detente. No, that's not how China has been treated; but US-Soviet relations were something like that.
At the risk of further infuriating Vice President Dick Cheney and other White House hawks, Rice offered the barest hint of this last week: "The Iranians can, by seriously negotiating about their nuclear program and seriously coming to a civil nuclear program that is acceptable to the international community, begin to change the relationship that it has with the international community, change the relationship that it has with the United States, begin to open the possibilities for cooperation," she said.
Maybe the Iranians will choose to exploit this tiny opening, or at least freeze their nuclear program temporarily so they can avoid a breach with Europe or Russia and provide their restless public with the visual of a US-Iranian handshake.
But it's at least as likely that they won't; that they will hold out in an attempt to force the Nixon-to-China gesture they really want.
The question then becomes: Could such a step be in the American interest? Would it be wise for Bush, or any president, to recognize Iran's Shi'ite Islamic regime as an enduring reality and a regional power whose interests must be accommodated in the broader Middle East? Would such recognition pay off in the form of a stable and democratic Iraq, or an end to Iranian support for Palestinian terrorism, or in the disarmament of Lebanon's Hizbullah movement?
It's hard to find experts on Iran in Washington who believe that it would. Which is why there will be no presidential visit to Teheran anytime in the foreseeable future - and why an Iranian-American understanding could remain as elusive in the next few months as it has over the past 25 years.
The writer is a deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.