Like it or not, U.S. must take Iran seriously
Anoush Ehteshami
The Des Moines Register
There was a time not too long ago that Iran was viewed as little more than a nuisance. It was a moderately significant player in the Middle East but not powerful or plugged-in enough to be taken seriously as a regional power.

It could only count Syria as an ally, it had very few other solid links with the Arab world, it was still smarting from the cost of the eight-year-long war with Iraq, and was still finding its way in a post-Cold War world. Ten years ago, a relatively passive policy of containment was deemed a sufficient response to Iran: hemming it in through various trade and financial sanctions and a regular U.S. naval deterrent force patrolling the waters of the Gulf.

Today, little happens internationally without an Iran angle. President Hugo Chavez talks oil politics. Hamas wins an openly contested election in Palestine. Hezbollah and Israel come to blows. Oil prices go up. Iraq burns. In every case, Iran is somehow implicated.

There appears to be no end to Iran's mischief and its apparent influences. Its announcement in early April that it was installing several thousand additional centrifuges in its Natanz facility was received with dismay by Washington and its allies.

For sure, Iran has loomed large on the West's radar since the revelations about its hitherto hidden nuclear program and the election of a neoconservative to Iran's presidency. For a country like Israel, the Iranian neocons pose an existential threat, while for leaders of the neighboring Gulf Arab oil monarchies, the specter of rising Iranian-Shiite hegemony makes them nervous about the safety of Sunni Arab interests.

So what should the United States and the world do?

Ahmadinejad's victory in 2005 demonstrated that Iran remains a deeply polarized society a quarter century after the victory of the Iranian revolution. His victory showed that a significant number of Iranians strongly support nonreformists and believe in the slogans of the neoconservatives regarding the redistribution of wealth, elimination of poverty, rooting out of corruption and protecting the Islamic nature of the state. These themes date back to the revolution, but Ahmadinejad's brand of populism is even more radical.

It is vital that we understand the enduring, centuries-long relationship between regional geopolitics and strategic Iranian interests and learn to act on it for the sake of regional stability - regardless of what leaders, moderate or extremist, happen to be in charge in Tehran. Iran's policies are as much a product of regional circumstances as they are domestic imperatives.

Neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman recognize that not all of Iranian foreign-policy and security interests have changed, despite the rise of Iranian neocons. They have begun to factor that into their calculations and policy responses by balancing deft cooperative diplomacy and lucrative economic deals with equally strong statements of their own (Arab) concerns and interests.

Turkey and, until recently, many of its European Union neighbors also recognize the complexity of the relationship between Iran's domestic politics and external behavior. They package their responses with a mix of overtures and reiteration of "red lines." A similar understanding from Washington is needed now to break an unhappy regional stalemate.

Despite Iran's many excesses and inconsistencies, its geopolitical, cultural and economic weight in the Middle East and west Asia makes it imperative the United States finds a way to initiate dialogue with Tehran. Ideally, this conversation occurs with its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei - who sits above the elected president and is the ultimate decision-maker on all foreign and security policies. This strategy is likely the only way forward if we are to avoid another major and costly confrontation in the Middle East.

This is not to suggest that Iran be rewarded for questionable behavior. It should be persuaded through negotiations that include incentives and disincentives to swim in a direction that is consistent with the aspirations of its neighbors.

Without an America that is comfortable breaking this icy relationship with Iran, the hope of achieving democratic and peaceful change in the Middle East will remain a distant dream - even for the next American president.

Professor ANOUSH EHTESHAMI is the head of the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, United Kingdom. He has written a policy brief examining the rise of Iran's neoconservatives for the Muscatine-based Stanley Foundation.

This page is part of Rising Powers: The New Global Reality, a project from the Stanley Foundation.