Why Iran must be brought in from the cold

It is 30 years since the then 76-year-old Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini returned from exile, on 1 February 1979, to oust a despised monarch and lead the revolutionary transformation of Iran, in what was, as Dominic Sandbrook writes in his essay on page 30, perhaps the defining event of the late 20th century. Through its fervour and violence, and in its anti-western, anti-imperialist rhetoric, the Iranian revolution inspired a new age of radical Islamism, with the US, the "Great Satan", positioned in opposition to the Muslim world.

The last US president to visit Tehran was Jimmy Carter, in 1977. To him, Iran was "an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world". He could not have made a greater misjudgement, and within two years America would be embroiled in a hostage crisis and Carter himself would be finished as president.

Since 1979, the US has had no diplomatic relations with Iran. During the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s, the Reagan administration funded Saddam Hussein's corrupt secular dictatorship, in an attempt to topple the Iranian theocracy. But the US cannot remain for ever in conflict with a country which has nuclear ambitions and grows ever more confident, oil-rich and bellicose under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran, an implacable enemy of Israel, also sponsors Hamas and Hezbollah.

During his election campaign, Barack Obama hinted that, as president, he would be prepared to talk to the Iranians. This is one promise he must honour. For without diplomacy between the two countries, there can be no peace in the Middle East.

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This article appears in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?