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Published: Monday, 4/6/2009

Opening to Iran

THE Obama Administration took an important step last week toward restoring diplomatic dialogue with Iran.

Exchanges with the Middle Eastern country had been more or less halted for 30 years, from 1979 when a new revolutionary regime held American Embassy employees in Tehran hostage for more than a year.

There were flurries of contact in the interim - for example, when the Reagan administration was involved with the Israelis in the infamous Iran-contra arms deal of the 1980s and when Iran cooperated with the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

But, in general, the three decades were characterized by U.S. concentration on increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran and on other efforts to deter it from developing a nuclear capacity.

Iran maintains that its nuclear program is designed entirely to meet peaceful energy needs; the United States is suspicious that it may be building nuclear weapons.

Despite onetime good relations with Israel, whenever Israel and Shiite Iran saw themselves as pitted against Sunni Arabs in the region, Iran has taken a sometimes strident position of opposition to Israel and has provided support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

The nadir of U.S.-Iran relations came when President George W. Bush lumped it with North Korea and Iraq as an "axis of evil" in a State of the Union address.

The Obama Administration is in the process of reaching out to Iran, part of which involved engineering Iran's invitation to a conference on Afghanistan held in The Hague last week.

And then, obviously not by chance, Washington's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, ran into Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhondzadeh at that conference and exchanged a few private words. They agreed to stay in touch.

There is every reason to.

For one thing, Iran can help on Afghanistan.

It, too, is concerned about that bordering country's massive production of opium and drug trade as well as the constantly strengthening position of the Taliban, a Sunni group in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is more militantly Islamist than even the conservative Muslim regime in Tehran.

There is also an economic and commercial aspect to the nascent relationship. Iran used to be an important trading partner of the United States. Now, American companies are barred from seeking opportunities in the Iranian market, 66 million strong, while European, Asian, and other Middle Eastern nations find the door wide open. Tearing down the self-inflicted economic barriers to U.S. involvement needs to be an important part of improving relations.

Iran has presidential elections scheduled for June 12. Some would argue that there is no point in trying to do much until the winner of that race is determined.

But better relations is a valid goal for both countries whoever ends up on top, so there is no good reason to wait. Mr. Holbrooke's not-so-coincidental encounter constituted a decent step forward.



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