x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Positive sign for warmer US-Iran ties

The approval for the American Iranian Council to open Tehran office latest sign of willingness to improve relations.

The United States, signalling a possible interest in better channels of communication with Iran, has granted rare permission for a US-based research and policy think tank to open an office in Tehran.

The American Iranian Council (AIC), which is devoted to improving relations between the two enemies, has been given a licence to establish a presence in the Islamic Republic by the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is responsible for enforcing American economic and trade sanctions against countries such as Iran, Sudan and Cuba. OFAC is not known for its leniency: it only relented to Iran's 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, publishing her memoirs in the United States after she began legal action against the US government.

The AIC says it is the only US-based non-governmental organisation to receive such a licence in recent years and hailed OFAC's decision as "extraordinary". Hooshang Amirahmadi, AIC's founder and president, said the council would "use this great opening to more effectively advance its mission of promoting dialogue and understanding between the peoples and governments of Iran and the United States at a time of immense promises and perils for their relations".

Despite continuing exchange of hostile rhetoric between Washington and Tehran, there have been signs of a cautious diplomatic dalliance in recent months. In July, the US allowed William Burns, a senior state department official, to attend direct talks for the first time with Iranian nuclear negotiators. Mr Burns spoke of the "long history of missed opportunities and crossed signals" between Iran and the US.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, has also said he would look favourably on the US opening an interests section in Tehran, an idea recently floated by Washington. The section would be staffed by Americans for the first time since the US cut diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic 28 years ago. "In this context, this [giving the AIC a licence to operate in Tehran] could be seen as a significant part of the US's overall policy shift - of the US promoting more contact and engagement with Iran than it did before," said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University in New York.

Five former US secretaries of state, including Democrats and Republicans, last month urged the next US president to engage directly with Iran as the best way to resolve the standoff over Tehran's nuclear programme. Tehran, in turn, is also increasingly interested in resolving the dispute through bilateral talks with the US, rather than by the multilateral channel of negotiations with leading European Union powers, analysts say.

The AIC, which is a non-partisan organisation, believes common interests far outweigh the differences between the US and Iran. Aside from shared goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US needs Iran's help if it is to stabilise the oil-rich Middle East while Iran's Islamic regime can never feel secure while it faces American hostility. Despite this, relations between the US and Iran have run aground on mistrust, misunderstanding and inaccurate portrayals of each other's government, culture and people, the Princeton, New Jersey-based AIC says.

With an office in Iran the council believes it can smooth the way for legislative and executive leaders in both countries to talk to one another and promote a "wide variety of non-governmental and civil society relationships". Mr Amirahmadi said he had permission from the US to open and office in Tehran and was now awaiting a response to a request for the same from Iran. "This [opening a Tehran office] will benefit Iran more than the Americans," he said. "The Iranians will have the opportunity for the first time to make direct statements to the world without any distortion [by the western media]."

"Iranian policymakers will have the opportunity to make policy statements first hand. I believe Mr Ahmadinejad's government will accept my request [to open an office]." He said he was confident of having the AIC Tehran office up and running within two months. Mr Amirahmadi, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, is a frequent visitor to Iran where he has met high-ranking officials, including Mr Ahmadinejad, who he believes is interested in better relations with the US.

He put himself forward as a candidate in the last Iranian presidential elections in 2005, but was disqualified by a hardline watchdog because of his American citizenship and democratic platform. Unsurprisingly, the AIC president is deeply unpopular with radical Iranian conservatives and has been provided with high level security by the Iranian government when visiting Iran. An editorial in the hardline Jomhuri Islami daily, entitled "Flattery with the Satan!", warned in July that "an American political middleman is freely wandering in Tehran, making interviews with different media and claims he has met even the most high-ranking officials".

The AIC is also unpopular with American hawks who want regime change in Iran rather than engagement. Many groups in the large Iranian expatriate community in the US, particularly monarchists, have little affection for the AIC. There is competition between such organisations as to which best can serve as an interlocutor between Iran and the US. The OFAC licence "gives the AIC a big leg up", Mr Sick said.

The AIC envisions the Iranian-American community, which is located mainly in Los Angeles and is nicknamed Tehrangeles by Iranians at home and abroad, playing an increasingly active role in American society. The council also wants to see Iran becoming a "democratically developed member of the global community with full respect for human rights". The AIC prides itself on several achievements. In 2003, it helped Iran initiate the offer of a so-called "grand bargain" to Washington under which Tehran would not attempt to procure weapons of mass destruction, would cast off groups the US deemed as terrorist, would help stabilise Iraq and would accept a two-state solution for Israel and the occupied territories.

Tehran in turn wanted full normalisation of ties with Washington, an end to sanctions and guarantees the US would not attempt to overthrow or undermine its Islamic regime. Washington, confident in the wake of Saddam Hussein's overthrow and before the Iraq insurgency took hold, rejected the offer. The AIC says in 2000 it helped Madeleine Albright, the then US secretary of state, formulate a landmark expression of regret for mistaken US policies towards Iran, including the 1953 Anglo-American coup against Mohammad Mossadegh, the popular prime minister, which restored to power the autocratic, pro-American shah.

That event spawned Iran's enduring mistrust of the US, in the same way that the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran - when 52 diplomats were held hostage for 444 days - scarred the American psyche about Iran. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae