THE CAR COLUMN
In Today's Newspaper
Why Iranians Will Take Their Time
By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune
TEHRAN - The recent elections in Iran have advanced prospects that the United States will soon make a gesture toward improving relations. But Iran's move to a more democratic and less ideological system could enhance, not dilute, its pursuit of its own national interest in ways that upset some U.S. assumptions.
Meanwhile, the futility of sanctions is daily being demonstrated by Washington's inability to influence Iran in favor either of increasing OPEC oil output or easing up on support for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Certainly there is here an overwhelming desire for improvement in relations with the former ''Great Satan.'' Demonization of the Islamic Republic is still alive in some quarters in the United States, but the reverse is no longer the case. Iranians know plenty to admire about America from their media and their relatives in California.
They know, too, that isolation in general is contrary to national interests. Iran badly needs U.S. and other foreign capital and export market access if its economy is to grow fast on the back of anything except oil prices.
Many Iranians fail to be excited by official rhetoric about the injustices being meted out by Israelis to Palestinians and Lebanese. Real these may be, but need Iran be more Palestinian than Yasser Arafat? they ask.
However, while President Mohammed Khatami exudes politeness toward Americans, there are reasons why Iran does not feel in much of a hurry to change its policies and speed normalization with an America that may soon recognize where its own national interest lies.
Clerical influence (and money) will ensure that the issues of Jerusalem and the Shiite community of Lebanon are not abandoned. Iran's reformers would prefer to tangle with conservatives on domestic issues. Iran will not stand in the way of a deal between Israel and Syria, but neither will it unilaterally drop support for Hezbollah without a major gain elsewhere.
The notable success of Tehran's efforts to improve relations with Arab nations, notably Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, has reduced its isolation. Helped by mutual oil interests and Arab frustration at perceived Israeli intransigence, this détente has undermined American influence.
Iran has been normalizing relations with Europe. Ministerial exchanges are accompanied by an upsurge of investor interest in a middle-income country of 65 million in a key strategic situation and politically more stable than most in the region.
Most Iranians are angered by (successful) U.S. attempts to prevent Central Asian countries from using Iran as conduit for oil and gas exports. Washington has promoted noneconomic alternatives, even preferring to deal with the murderous, drug-financed Taleban in Afghanistan rather than talk to Tehran.
There is resentment of the intensity of U.S. efforts to deny arms to Iran, despite Iran's recent history of being invaded by a (Western-armed) Iraq, and the proximity of a Pakistan with Chinese-supplied missile and nuclear weapon technology. Iranian diplomats hope that President Bill Clinton will learn in New Delhi, not from Muslims but from Hindu nationalists, how bizarre U.S. policy in the region often appears.
None of this is to deny that the United States has its own grievances. Nor is it to forget the crimes against humanity committed in Iran in the name of revolution and Islam.
Nor is it to fall into the nationalist trap of being carried away by 3,000 years of history and Iran's strategic geography and believing that it is more important than it really is in the contemporary world.
But before assuming that a somewhat more democratic, liberal and open Iran will become a friend of the West, it is as well to examine how Iranians perceive their interests.
For the United States to allow, as expected, the import of Iranian pistachio nuts and end its opposition to World Bank loans will be steps forward. But a big breakthrough is unlikely until the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act expires next year, and America has a new president who can forget past executive orders and admit past policy failures.