Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the two superpowers established the “Hot-line,” permitting the two heads-of-state to speak to one another without intermediaries. Protocols also were worked out to avoid inadvertent military clashes, culminating in the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement. Sports, scientific, and cultural exchanges allowed the two societies to gain some insight into each other. A wide range of official negotiations covered topics as diverse as weapons of mass destruction, European security, economic issues, and human rights. The 1975 Helsinki Accords were particularly important for opening up Soviet society, enabling Russian elites to understand the better life that could be possible if the Cold War ended.
The US-Iran conflict has followed a different path. When a popular revolution overthrew the Shah in 1979, it became clear immediately that the United States and the Islamic Republic had strikingly different visions of the Middle East. In the early years, this conflict was accentuated by the US’s tacit alignment with Saddam Hussein’s long war against Iran and by Iranian support for Hezbollah and other terrorist groups that kidnapped and killed Americans in Lebanon. As the years passed, the US-Iran “Cold War” has played out much as its predecessor did, featuring harsh threats, covert operations, economic sanctions, wars by proxies, and even direct, if limited, military clashes.
Currently, the US is greatly concerned about the ultimate goals of Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran claims is intended for peaceful purposes, but the degree of American angst is amplified by the fundamentally distrustful relationship between the two states, and the lack of information about each other. There is no doubt that the nuclear issue should remain the priority for US policy toward Iran, but it is long past due that the US consider a broader strategy of engagement.
The US and Iran have fundamental differences about the Middle East; yet they also have some common concerns, not least of which is avoiding a war that neither wants. Not only should the US seek to ensure the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program through negotiations in the upcoming P-5+1 forum, but it should also aim to resolve issues in which we may share common interests, such as maritime security, the drug trade, avoiding chaos in Iraq, and the future of Afghanistan, bilaterally. A policy is needed that seeks, over time, to protect American interests in the Middle East, yet recognizes that Iran, too, has legitimate concerns and that it is in both sides’ interest to coexist peacefully. Civilian exchanges, military-military contacts, direct communications channels, and diplomatic interactions are all part such a strategy. Obviously, the fundamental political issues between the US and Iran will not be resolved soon, but such an effort could eventually provide major payoffs for both nations.
Blechman is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington-D.C.-based non-profit, non-partisan institution devoted to enhancing international peace and security. He and Moore are the authors of a new report released March 15, “Iran in Perspective: Holding Iran to Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy.”