Iran-United States relationship remains virtually frozen |
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Iran-United States relationship remains virtually frozen

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the worshippers before he delivers his Friday prayers sermon, at the Tehran University campus, Iran. The U.S. and Iran secretly engaged in high-level, face-to-face talks, at least three times over the past year, in a high stakes diplomatic gamble by the administration that paved the way for the historic deal aimed at slowing Iran's nuclear program. At President Obama's direction, the U.S. began a tentative outreach to Iran shortly after his January 2009 inauguration.

Back-channel diplomacy, letters to the Ayatollah and even a trip to Pittsburgh by a deputy cultural minister might signal to some a warming of U.S.-Iran relations.

After 35 years of escalating animosity, Iran has shown some value in U.S. efforts to stabilize the Middle East. Analysts wonder whether President Obama, whose secret letters to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei came to light as nuclear negotiations resumed, is looking at a diplomatic accord with the Shiite nation as a potential signature policy achievement.

Dialing back economic sanctions, though, especially those that limit oil exports, would take irrefutable proof that Iran has dismantled any nuclear arms program and won’t return to its troublemaking ways, experts said.

“Before we did that, and before Republicans would agree to a deal, we’d need to see the Iranians cross a point of very difficult return,” said Thomas Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Despite some informal relations such as last month’s trip to Pittsburgh, tension with Iran remains high and a resumption of diplomacy appears unlikely, said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr.

“Even with the nuclear negotiations, the reality is we’re going to be in a different place for a long, long time,” said Casey, D-Scranton, noting the country’s statements on eliminating Israel and its sponsorship of terrorism.

Advocates for re-establishing diplomatic ties with Iran point to strategic advantages in fighting Sunni extremists and a more moderate government under President Hassan Rouhani.

“It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, where somebody wins and somebody loses. These countries should be trading with each other,” said Simin Yazdergedi Curtis, CEO and founder of the Downtown-based American Middle East Institute. Her group last month hosted a delegation of Iranian officials led by Ali Moradkhani, deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance for art affairs, a rare visit outside New York.

Moradkhani and State Department adviser Greg Sullivan spoke about sponsoring more cultural exchanges with the United States during speeches to the institute’s annual business conference, Curtis said. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently canceled a trip to Tehran that Curtis tried to organize.

There was no political or business talk, she said.

Allowing such visits and increasing relations with Iran send the wrong message, said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“As Iraq’s neighbor, Iran is more dependent on U.S. cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State, but now, the State Department is acting as if the United States is more dependent on Tehran’s support than the other way around,” he said.

Sanctions might have hurt Iran’s economy and increased internal pressure to strike a deal with the West to reopen oil exports, but they haven’t stopped the country’s human rights abuses, a recent report from the Congressional Research Service noted. Members of the delegation that visited Pittsburgh are involved in censorship of literature, cinema and music, Alfoneh said.

“Why issue visas to the enforcers of censorship?” he asked.

A State Department official said the department supports “people-to-people” conversations about cultural programs but would not approve business or political exchanges between the countries. Casey said those personal connections can help push the Iranian people toward an eventual regime change.

The Obama administration will “continue to hold the Iranian government accountable for its actions” in supporting terrorist groups and human rights abuses, the State Department said.

Some U.S. sanctions date to the country’s Islamic revolution in 1979 and subsequent hostage crisis, though pressure from the United Nations and elsewhere increased since 2006.

The United States and allies in January agreed to temporarily ease some of the grip with an interim “standstill” agreement to limit nuclear development. An extension of that agreement expires Nov. 24, prompting high-level negotiations in Oman this week.

Many Iranians are hungry for a deal. The sanctions cut oil exports to about 1 million barrels of oil a day last year, from 2.5 million in 2011, and Iran’s economy shrank by about 5 percent, the Congressional Research Service said. The recent drop in global oil prices to below $80 a barrel further hurt the country, which needs to collect $120 a barrel for production to remain economically viable.

A deal could provide stability in the Middle East, despite opposition from U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, Sanderson said. That could explain why Obama would see a deal as a “blockbuster accomplishment.”

“Those countries would have to recognize the reality of a relationship there,” Sanderson said.

In addition to huge concessions from Iran, striking a deal will take savvy work by Obama’s team, Sanderson said. Iran will look for protection of its allies in Syria, Hezbollah and Shia leaders in Iraq, he said.

“The (U.S.) says they can compartmentalize, but these guys are awesome negotiators,” he said of the Iranians. “They’re not going to negotiate in isolation.”

David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or [email protected].

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