Iran is so old that its first empire was around to lose to Alexander the Great of Macedonia. That's actually more glorious than it sounds, because it was only the Persians' ability to build such good roads - a new technology at the time - that made the conquest possible. Unfortunately, for that particular dynasty, there was insufficient time to work the kinks out, thereby leaving Macedonia with its 15 minutes of fame. The Persians, however, pop up over and over again throughout human history - sometimes performing glorious deeds, other times making a hash of things.
Most Americans could care less about Iranian history, but we all seem concerned about oil, the nuclear issue, Iraq & Afghanistan. Hence, Iran rightfully appears to be at the top of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy agenda. That's good, because the two countries have a lot of strategic interests in common. Instability in Iraq is bad for both; the Taliban is a shared enemy; secure passage to of oil through the Straits of Hormuz of Hormuz is critical.
So why aren't we friends? Well, there's the whole issue of Israel, but that may very well be more populist rhetoric than anything else. (More on that in a moment.) More central is our recent history. In the 1950s, we helped the British to topple Mossadeq because he nationalized the oil industry. By the time we put the Shah into power, we were acting like full and enthusiastic neo-colonialists. It's no wonder that many Iranians have a bone to pick with us.
It's not all one sided of course: Iranians held Americans hostage for 444 days. Then we supplied both sides of the war when Iraq, under Hussein, invaded Iran. Many thousands of Iranians (and Iraqis) died as a result of Ollie North's illegal activities in the Iran-Contra Affair. In addition, one of our warships really did shoot down one of their civilian airlines in the 1980s. We admitted responsibility but never paid restitution. More recently, we've placed 150,000 US troops in Iraq, conducted raids across its border and encouraged groups seeking to overthrow the Iranian government. Meanwhile, the Iranians have been providing munitions and training for the infamous IED's that have killed, maimed and wounded so many US soldiers. In other words, both sides feel threatened and have legitimate grievances.
At this point in history, however, continued animosity doesn't appear to benefit either side. In reality, we seem to have a lot more in common with Iranian - a theocracy with limited democratic leanings - than the Gulf States - absolute monarchies with Salafist leanings. That's why I applaud Obama for taking the first step onto a new path by making an overture steeped in respect. The fact that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei actually responded by asking for actions, as well as fine words, indicates that the Iranians are ready to do business.
The question then is how best to proceed: a simple way to get the ball rolling would be to relax the economic sanctions against the country and unfreeze any remaining Iranian government assets. At the same time, we should open negotiations to make restitution for the civilian airline that we admit to having shot down. These communicate respect but don't cost the US taxpayer very much. If the Iranians aren't serious, we will still have gained diplomatic leverage by demonstrating to the Europeans and Russians that we extended an olive branch in good faith. If, however, things move forward, we can explore something more strategically valuable
That would be a comprehensive deal with the US, Israel and Iran. We would demand - nicely, in diplomatic sort of way - that Iran formally recognize Israel's right to exist, with all that implies. We would also seek a cooperative arrangement for managing our joint problems in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course, we would have to make concessions as well. First, we would recognize the legitimacy of the Iranian government and agree to halt our covert, regime change activities. Second, we would acknowledge and even support the Iranian right to a civilian nuclear program.
The simple fact is that too much Iranian pride and energy invested in its nuclear program to expect them to abandon it; and, they do have a significant and compelling need for more energy. In addition, the current militarization of the program can better be slowed if it is not entirely covert and the UN gets to inspect the facilities. Equally, Iran will have need less need for nuclear weapons if it has ad deal with us and recognizes Israel - a country with its own nuclear arsenal. Finally, they're not going to stop this program, no matter what we do. Not so long ago, India did something similar and we found a way to live with the fact that it had violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
This last suggestion will doubtlessly rub a lot of people the wrong way, but that doesn't make the prospect of a nuclear Iran any less certain. With the application of some respect and pragmatism, however, we might make that outcome work better for everyone involved.