Denis MacShane: US should talk to Iran, before it's too late

Now is the time to send an ambassador - why not Bill Clinton?

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There is something of 1914 in the air. The Greys and Poincarés fret as the wheels of conflict trundle inexorably forward. The Iran crisis brings together every world problem: nuclear weapons in the hands of theo-cons who want to exterminate Jews; the economic future of China; and, above all, the inability of a world system or its most powerful state to impose a solution.

Instead of plodding through the rituals of UN Security Council debates with a drift to war, can the United States offer a grand bargain that would transform Iranian politics?

It happened three decades ago when America also faced an ideological opponent whose leaders preached hate of the West and threatened a key US ally across the Taiwan Strait. Yet in one of the boldest strokes of 20th-century diplomacy, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, neither of whom could be accused of liberal soft power modishness, transformed America's and the world's relationship with China.

Diplomatic recognition may seem a fuddy-duddy response to a world problem but a decision by President Bush and his imaginative Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to re-establish diplomatic relations with Tehran or seriously to make the offer would have a transformative impact on the Middle East.

America broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah and the hostage-taking in the US embassy in Tehran. Now is the time to send an ambassador to Iran - why not Bill Clinton for the first 12 months? - and initiate a new policy of trade, travel, tourism and mass contact between the people of Iran and the West.

Iran has vibrant politics, a growth rate which matches that of China, and seven out of 10 Iranians are under the age of 30. This generation wants an end to the whippings, executions and endless fear of arrest. Finding a way of engaging with this Iran with its huge pride in Persian history and culture is a priority.

Iran sponsors terrorism but has maintained peaceful relations with Turkey for over five centuries. Were it not for endless meddling by Britain and then America in the quest for oil, Iran could now be en route to being a normal Muslim state like Malaysia or Turkey.

It is not just the West's fault. Iran has created its own status as the diplomatic pariah of the region. Tehran does not recognise Egypt, and of course shuns diplomatic relations with Israel.

The failure of Arab and Muslim states to have diplomatic relations with Israel is a further example of making diplomacy the enemy of progress rather than using state-to-state relations to tackle intractable problems.

Only Jordan and Egypt have full diplomatic relations with Israel. As FCO minister I attended pointless EU conclaves of ministers from Mediterranean countries. As I listened to Arab foreign ministers droning on and their Israeli opposite number being as unhelpful as could be I asked out loud why the Arabs did not recognise Israel and have some of these debates in Tel Aviv, Damascus, or Algiers. Like the child who said the proud emperor was naked, Arab ministers looked in horror at any suggestion that their rejectionist diplomacy was counter-productive.

There is no need to concede an ounce of your opponent's position to enjoy the benefits of diplomatic recognition. France continued to have a functioning embassy in Berlin during the long years of German occupation of Alsace-Lorraine.

One of the best things Robin Cook did was to recognise North Korea in 1998 at a time when North Korea was a pariah state. It meant Britain had access, in a way few other powers did, during key developments in the Korean peninsular since then.

Opening embassies in Tel Aviv would still allow Arab League states to sustain their demands on Israel - evacuation of the occupied territories, a shared capital in Jerusalem, as well as Israel working with Palestinians for the creation of a viable state of Palestine.

The old mantra that diplomatic recognition follows after everything else has been settled reverses priorities. In the 1950s, West Germany's Hallstein doctrine held that Bonn would refuse relations with any country that recognised the Communist German Democratic Republic. Willy Brandt became Germany's Foreign Minister in 1966, recognised the German Democratic Republic, and started the process of hollowing out Communism from within.

Can the United States drop its politics of non-recognition of Iran? Have Bush and Rice the same vision as Nixon and Kissinger? The Iranians need America as a partner, not an enemy. Washington should play this card before tragedy takes over.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and was a Foreign Office minister 2001-2005

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