TOPICS : A small step back from the brink

The Bush administration and Iran seem to be stepping back from the brink of their confrontation over accusations that Iran is pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. Last Sunday, Iranian officials in Vienna said they would consider suspending their controversial uranium-enrichment programme for two months if that would improve the climate for the talks. Washington’s chief negotiator there said he welcomed the move. This is great news.

The last thing the Middle East or central Asia needs is an outbreak of fighting between the US and Iran. In Afghanistan and Iraq, US and allied troops face a worrying escalation of hostilities. In both countries, these troops are deployed in vulnerable positions, at the end of equally vulnerable supply lines. Iran lies between those two countries and abuts the US naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

So it is not nearly enough to take just one small step back from the brink. Washington and Tehran need urgently to start addressing the broader issues of power and security in the region. They also need to make sure that the military forces they both have deployed and primed for action there do not get mistakenly jerked into action. Does each side have a hotline arrangement to dispel misunderstandings, I wonder? If not, they should. How can the weightier challenge of stabilising the long-stormy US-Iran relationship be tackled? This is a real conundrum. The two governments have not had diplomatic relations since 1980, the year after Iranian radicals seized the US Embassy and held American hostages for 444 days. Since then — including quite recently — both leaderships have hurled some very strong invective against the other.

For the first time since 1979, Washington allowed a visiting Iranian dignitary to travel across the country and talk to a range of Americans. This was Mohammad Khatami, who was president of Iran from 1997 until last summer. I was at two of the gatherings Khatami addressed and I found him eager to help improve relations between Washington and Tehran. He recalled that he and Bill Clinton had taken some small steps to ease tensions. “But the atmosphere changed after Clinton left office.”

Khatami’s suggestion that the US should engage Iraq’s neighbours and the UN as it works out an endgame there seems very sensible to me. But would Khatami be the best “channel” for such an approach? He has clear differences with Ahmadinejad — but a much more nuanced relationship with supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the real seat of power in Iran. It was not clear if Khatami was proposing himself for any diplomatic role.

What seemed clear was his commitment, in a general but philosophically deep way, to the ideals of peaceful coexistence that motivated his US trip. If this visit — and Bush’s wisdom in letting it proceed — helps to avoid a US-Iranian confrontation and brings the countries closer, then that is already a cause for huge relief. — The Christian Science Monitor